January 19, 2012
By The Associated Press
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — An accident at the Idaho National Laboratory that exposed 16 employees to plutonium radiation could have been prevented, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Inadequate safety measures and ineffective training contributed to the November contamination and lab officials missed several opportunities to make changes, states a report released Wednesday by the Energy Department’s Office of Health, Safety and Security.
The accident happened in a building that once housed a nuclear reactor. Workers had been taking plutonium fuel out of storage when they came upon radioactive materials held in two containers, each marked with a label stating they were damaged. After talking to supervisors, workers removed the wrapping on one of the containers and a radioactive black powder spilled out.
The workers had on lab coats and a few had gloves, but none had respiratory gear or other protective clothing, according to the 123-page report.
It’s too early to tell how much radiation the workers were exposed to, said Sharon Dossett, the lab’s director of environment, safety and health. She said she expects to find that the doses were so low that they won’t cause health problems.
However, at least one worker is believed to have inhaled the plutonium contamination. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says on its website that internal exposure to plutonium poses an “extremely serious health hazard” because it stays in the body for decades and increases the risk of cancer.
Officials suspect the container had been damaged years ago, and that long-term exposure to oxygen and moisture caused some of the plutonium to deteriorate into powder.
The investigation found that a series of problems led to the accident and that lab managers were aware of some of the dangers.
At least seven years ago information was lost that would have detailed the condition of the fuel plates containing plutonium-239, according to the report.
Also, lab officials — including Phil Breidenbach, the director of nuclear operations — received recommendations for safe handling of the fuel plates in January of 2009 and June 2011. But the guidelines were not followed on either occasion, investigators found.
Deputy laboratory director Riley Chase told the Post Register the lab is looking into Breidenbach’s apparent failure to act on the recommendations.
The report also provides details of the accident that raise safety questions.
On Nov. 8, the report states, workers removed four small boxes containing plutonium fuel plates from a vault. Two were labeled with warnings about radioactive contents and abnormalities in their conditions.
About 10 minutes later, a shift supervisor called a manager to discuss the labels, according to the report, and the two worked out a plan to open them. Shortly after, the workers — none wearing protective clothing except for a few with gloves — placed the containers on a “confinement hood” and a worker started to open one of them.
One worker, not named in the report, told Energy Department investigators claims to have asked supervisors what to do in the event of a fire or if a powder was found. The worker said the supervisor responded that it was “not a valid question.”
The supervisor does not remember such a conversation, investigators said.
Minutes later, according to the report, black powder spilled out of one of the containers as a worker cut through the plastic covering. The workers conducted tests to see what they had found, remaining in the room for more than four minutes until a radiation alarm sounded.
Chase, the deputy lab director, said management underestimated the hazard posed by the plutonium fuel plates, which were at least 30 years old, and that if they had predicted the accident they would have used a “glove box,” which provides much more protection than a standard confinement hood.
The investigators recommended that the company that holds the lab management contract, Battelle Energy Alliance, should reinforce proper work procedures and improve self-assessments at the complex.
The Energy Department also said in the report that local DOE officials knew about the safety problems at the site, accepted that risk and didn’t put interim controls in place to help prevent any accidents.