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(Excerpt) Accident at INL leads to complaint

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Printed on: August 11, 2013

By ALEX STUCKEY – Post Register

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Ralph Stanton slowly sliced through the plastic and electrical tape wrapped around a plutonium fuel plate.

From above the hood, he watched his gloved hands work over the plate, found in a box — called a clamshell — atypically labeled with warnings about radioactive contents and abnormalities in the fuel plate’s conditions.

Just minutes before, he and his co-workers conferred with their immediate supervisor about opening this and another atypical clamshell. Their supervisor gave them the go-ahead to cut through the plastic. An operator also asked what to do in the event of a fire or powder sighting. The operator said he was told that was “not a valid question,” but the supervisor does not recall this, according to the January 2012 Department of Energy Accident Investigation report.

Stanton slowly turned the plate over. Black powder, plutonium, spilled out.

No respirator protection was worn, the report stated.

At 11:04 a.m. Nov. 8, 2011 — in the building that once housed the Zero Power Physics Reactor on the Department of Energy’s desert site — Stanton and 15 others were exposed to the plutonium.

The aftermath of the accident — and the decisions made by Battelle Energy Alliance leading up to it — led Stanton and a colleague, Brian Simmons, to file a whiste-blower complaint against the contractor in charge of Idaho National Laboratory.

The DOE report concluded the seeds of the accident were planted years before it occurred. They included:

n June 23, 2011: A safety official presented a document to management containing recommendations for safe handling of fuel plates stored at the reactor building, the second time since 2009. Both times, the document’s “significance was not recognized and no action was taken,” according to the report.

n Around 2004-2005 — about the time BEA was awarded the 10-year contract to manage INL — information containing the condition of the fuel plates — some of which were stored for 30 years in the reactor building — was lost.

But at 11:04 a.m., Stanton was not aware of these issues. He was only aware of the hand- and foot-monitor alarm and the jittery feeling forming a lump in his throat.

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