Groups seek more info about nuclear mishaps
When a propane line sprang a leak last month at a federal nuclear-research complex in the Idaho desert, hundreds of workers were evacuated...
The Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho — When a propane line sprang a leak last month at a federal nuclear-research complex in the Idaho desert, hundreds of workers were evacuated and officials made regular announcements on the status of the danger until the problem was fixed hours later.
But dozens of smaller, "near-miss" episodes occur each year without public notification at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), where the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) wants to begin producing plutonium-238 for the first time in decades and where Congress just appropriated $40 million to begin developing an experimental nuclear power reactor.
Instead, details of those minor accidents or procedural oversights are logged in an Energy Department database, the records of which were recently obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act.
In the past year alone, there have been 21 cases of INL workers accidentally contaminated with radioactive material; in all cases, the exposure was classified as negligible. In one case, an employee's car and home were searched after officials feared Europium-154 found on the person's overcoat had been carried off the high-security nuclear-research compound.
In one instance, a few bolts that anchored the seismic braces of a 38-foot-tall heat exchanger in the Advanced Test Reactor to stabilize it during an earthquake were found to have rattled out of their threads. All 180 bolts were found to be too short to properly secure the braces.
And an analysis of the amount of uranium that could safely be stored in a lab failed to take into account that the radioactive material was in powder form, not solid, posing a much higher health risk if spilled than originally estimated.
All of the incidents were minor and INL officials say none posed a grave risk beyond the boundaries of the 890-square-mile test compound, but they were documented and investigated in an effort to prevent more serious problems in the future.
Some recent mishaps at the Idaho National Laboratory, according to Energy Department records obtained by The Associated Press:
March 2005: 15 drums of spent nuclear fuel were assigned an incorrect transportation rating because an expandable rubber plug in the cans was not taken into account in calculating if the drum could safely contain the material.
April 2004 — May 2005: Due to perspiration wicking contamination through protective clothing or inexperience in fastening protective layers, 21 cases of radiological contamination occurred, including 10 cases of skin contact with radioactive material. In all cases, the amount of exposure was classified as negligible.
June 2005: Workers discovered three seismic support bolts securing the heat exchanger in the Advanced Test Reactor had vibrated out of their anchor plates because they were too short to properly fasten. All 180 bolts were subsequently replaced.
June 2005: A radiological survey of an employee's home was conducted after a worker exiting an INL facility was found to be wearing a coat contaminated with radioactive Europium-154. The source of the contamination was not determined, and there was no sign of contamination in the employee's home or car.
June 2005: Workers discovered that canisters of depleted and natural uranium being stored in a building contained the powder form of the radioactive material, not the solid form as had been assumed when calculating the potential danger from a spill. The amount of material exceeded the maximum allowed risk and was removed.
August 2005: The state of Utah notified INL of 33 violations for incomplete shipping labels on low-level radioactive waste sent from Idaho to a private hazardous waste dump near Salt Lake City. The mistake was classified as administrative in nature with no safety significance.
The Associated Press
"The intent of the system is to find, report and fix problems while your problems are small," said Bob Stallman, senior operations and safety officer at INL. "That's one of the reasons there are so many reports in the system. Our threshold for reporting is quite low because we want to know the small problems that are occurring."
But the public has a right to know about all accidents at the site, not just the big ones, say leaders of environmental groups who monitor the remote eastern Idaho facility. The Snake River Alliance, Environmental Defense Institute and Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free asked DOE in a Nov. 20 letter to put the so-called "occurrence reports" online for easy access by the public over instead of being released only in response to written request.
"Right now, the public operates with blinders on and only responds to incidents that the government thinks we need to know about," said Jeremy Maxand, director of the Snake River Alliance. "If you take one of these incidents and combine it with the right circumstances, you could have a serious situation."
While DOE requires written requests from the public to disclose the reports, it sends copies to the state's Division of INL Oversight and Radiation Control each week. The federal government also notifies the state any time INL's radiological assistance team is deployed outside the boundaries of the nuclear reservation.
"We try to strike a balance between the safety of having people well-informed versus having people who might want to do us harm well-informed," said Kathleen Trever, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's coordinator for INL oversight. "As you can imagine, the pendulum at the moment is more on the side of keeping information confidential or less readily available."
J.D. Wulfhorst, a University of Idaho rural sociologist who surveyed Idaho residents' attitudes toward the nuclear site in 2003, said many people who live in eastern Idaho are tied to INL economically and socially and have a higher level of trust in the department and its contractors than people outside the immediate area.
"That's not because they have sold out, but because they know and have experienced the different safety mechanisms that are in place," he said. "It's all very normal for people who live around large, complex installations like those operated by the military or Energy Department who deal with that risk on a daily basis and have familiarity with it."
Other residents in Idaho may be more skeptical that the federal government would promptly alert the public to potential environmental contamination or health hazards because they've been influenced by critics and a Cold War legacy of the Energy Department neglecting public health.
"There are special interest groups that have targeted the site and have educated the general population on certain elements, for better or worse, and that has created a distrust whether the agencies are disclosing all the information," Wulfhorst said.
Lack of easy access to INL accident reports adds to the skepticism some have that the federal government may not be forthcoming about operations at the facility, said Maxand.
"If they want to tout INL as the safest place on the planet for these programs, they should have as much transparency as possible," he said. "More people are paying attention to what's going on out there and there should be no reason why this kind of safety performance information is not made readily available."
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.