FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 19, 2013
CONTACT: Snake River Alliance
Liz Woodruff, Executive Director
208-344-9161 (w); 208-871-4597 (c)
Snake River Alliance: INL Worker Complaint Over Plutonium Exposure Incident Underscores Need for More Transparent Lab Operations
BOISE – If Thursday’s complaint by two Idaho National Laboratory workers exposed to plutonium shows anything, it is that the Department of Energy and its INL contractor must be more vigilant about the hazards of the materials handled at the Idaho site but also more transparent when dangerous accidents occur and more responsible in helping injured workers, the Snake River Alliance said Friday.
INL workers Ralph Stanton and Brian Simmons say INL contractor Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA) not only created a dangerous work environment but also retaliated against the two when they raised concerns about their exposure to plutonium in a November 2011 accident that affected more than a dozen workers.
On Thursday, Seattle attorney Jack Sheridan filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging the retaliation but also that BEA downplayed the significance of the workers’ plutonium exposure, transferred them to lower level jobs and took various forms of disciplinary actions against them.
Stanton and Simmons were among 16 site employees who were potentially exposed to plutonium during a Nov. 8 accident at INL’s “Zero Power Physics Reactor” facility at the Materials and Fuels Complex. The workers began to evacuate when air alarms sounded, and seven of them received external contamination on their skin.
According to their complaint, Stanton and Simmons say they were asked to falsify safety procedures on a job done in October 2011. A month later the plutonium accident occurred. According to the Idaho Falls Post Register account of Thursday’s news conference, the complaint says Battelle sent the two workers to a psychological exam, gave them poor performance reviews, and withheld exposure dosage information.
A news release by Sheridan said the Complaint by the two workers “alleges that since Simmons and Stanton were exposed, they had symptoms of radiation poisoning including: nausea vomiting confusion, diarrhea and high blood pressure, which lasted for months. BEA continued to deny the significance of the exposure, removed them from their job duties for eight months, and assigned them to sit in a basement office without meaningful work.”
“The facts in this case according to the DOE’s own Office of Health, Safety and Security’s Accident Investigation Report made it clear that this accident was preventable and that there were disturbing weaknesses in Battelle’s control process,” Snake River Alliance Executive Director Liz Woodruff said. “This complaint raises serious questions not only about what happened at INL in November 2011, but just as troubling how these two injured workers were treated afterward.”
Woodruff said the circumstances surrounding the accident underscore the need to improve safety and accountability measures, particularly in the many areas of the INL where dangerous materials such as plutonium are handled. She cited a portion of the accident report summary that said: “The Board concluded that this accident was preventable and that, over time, a number of opportunities had been missed that could have prevented the accident.”
Just this week, the Post Register reported that an INL worker suffered burns in an accident in February 2013 and that the DOE’s Office of Enforcement and Oversight is investigating it. But Battelle did not disclose the accident until this week, when the newspaper asked about it.
“Accidents happen, even at INL, and we know that,” Woodruff said. “But often when they happen at the Idaho National Laboratory they have serious consequences. If Idahoans are expected to have confidence in the safety of this facility, its managers need to be more accountable. The complaint filed Thursday with the Department of Labor only underscores that there are worker safety and cultural issues that, despite DOE’s repeated investigations, persist.”
The Snake River Alliance works for responsible solutions to nuclear waste and a nuclear-free future. It seeks to strengthen Idaho’s economy and communities through the implementation of renewable energy sources in Idaho and the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation.