Radioactive material is inherently dangerous. There are 266 licensed users of radioactive material in Idaho, including medical, commercial and industrial users. Eighty-two of those are commercial users. One commercial user is Sabia, a San Diego-based firm with a facility in Idaho Falls. It produces and services machines that use gamma rays to identify elements in coal so that it meets specifications for producing power. A Sabia worker was exposed to strontium-90 on Friday, February 29. The following wrap-up story and editorial from the Idaho Falls newspaper tell the tale.
Idaho Falls Post Register
Sunday March 9, 2008
DEQ: Sabia didn’t follow protocol
Company should have called 911 after a worker was exposed to radioactive material
–By MATTHEW EVANS [email protected]
If he could do anything differently, Sabia Inc. owner Clinton Lingren would
have called 911 after one of his employees was exposed to radioactive
material Feb. 29.
He didn’t, Lingren said, because he and his crew didn’t realize Idaho Falls hosts a local team trained to handle such situations — the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security’s regional hazardous materials team.
“In Idaho Falls, we would call 911,” he said. “If we were someplace else, we might not call 911.”
Instead, Lingren’s crew of four called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — four hours after the incident in which strontium 90 spewed from a gauge used by coal miners. The man preparing the gauge for disposal inhaled the radioactive material, which can cause bone cancer and leukemia.
Three other employees at the facility, located in Building B at the Bonneville County-owned Idaho Innovation Center on Yellowstone Avenue, were not affected by the release, and an NRC spokesman said the contamination was confined to Sabia and never posed a public threat.
To ensure that was the case, a team with the state Department of Environmental Quality on Monday night surveyed Fred Meyer on Northgate Mile, the lobby and two rooms at LeRitz Hotel, the Qual-Tek Associates on Commerce Circle, Mountain View Hospital’s RediCare facility in the Taylor Crossing development and the home of a Sabia employee. All tested clean for radioactive material, said an incident report from the Idaho Bureau of
Alerting the NRC is protocol, a state DEQ official said, but authorities also should be told.
“Sabia should have called 911,” the DEQ’s Lezlie Aller said. “They did not follow protocol.”Therefore, local authorities weren’t aware of the exposure until more than 24 hours later, and the public was told even later.”
That did seem a little odd,” said Beatrice Brailsford of the Snake River Alliance, a nuclear watchdog group. “I’m hoping everyone involved sits down and comes up with a better way to do that. When should the state be notified? When should first responders be
Bonneville County Commission Chairman Roger Christensen, who learned of the incident late in the afternoon on March 1, also would like to see such a meeting.
He plans to outline his concerns in a letter to the governor and Congressional delegation.
Meanwhile, the NRC is investigating the incident — the second time it’s probed Sabia.
In 2005, after an event at the company’s headquarters in San Diego, Calif., Sabia agreed to audit its safety procedures and better train its employees.The results of the current
investigation are expected within 30 days.
NRC spokesman Victor Dricks declined to speculate about the outcome or whether fines would be levied.”
We’re concerned with their compliance with our regulations, regarding security, storage and handling of radioactive material, for the protection of their employees and the public,” he said.
Lingren, meanwhile, expects to be back in business in Bonneville County as soon as he gets the OK from the NRC. To do that, he has to clean the three bays that house the
It needs “extensive clean-up,” Dricks said, declining to estimate the cost.
Lingren doesn’t know how much he’ll have to pay for the cleanup.
“We’re getting quotes right now,” he said Thursday. “There are two or three
companies we’re in contact with that are qualified to do the work.”
Should Sabia be trusted?
“Absolutely,” Lingren said.
Idaho Falls Post Register
Wednesday March 5, 2008
Friday’s top-down response
On Friday, workers at Sabia Inc.’s Idaho Falls office released strontium 90, and one worker inhaled the material. Contamination was limited to the company’s offices at the Idaho Innovation Center.
When it comes to radioactive materials, however, delay leads to confusion. Confusion breeds suspicion. And suspicion erodes public confidence.
This occurred in a community that houses one of the nation’s eight Radiological Assistance Program teams. It’s home to the Idaho National Laboratory oversight office. The Idaho Falls Fire Department is one of Idaho’s seven regional hazardous-materials response teams.
But Sabia answers to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC’s protocols don’t envision contacting local and state authorities in a nonemergency.
So Sabia pursued a top-down approach that had the result of keeping state and local officials out of the loop for hours — and left the public unaware of the incident for 36 hours.
Here’s the timeline:
11 a.m. Friday: The release occurred. Shortly after, one worker went to a grocery store to get cleanup materials. Another went to a medical facility. Later, some went to their hotel rooms.
Four hours later: The NRC was notified.
21.5 hours later: The NRC contacted the state radiation duty officer at the Department of Environmental Quality.
27 hours later: Not satisfied to wait on the NRC’s timetable, state officials started organizing.
32 hours later: Local officials got the word.
36 hours later: The public was told about the Sabia radioactivity release.
45 hours later: Federal, state and local officials met at the regional DEQ office to organize.
49 hours later: They began surveying the Sabia offices, concluding no radioactivity had spread outside the offices. Between then and early Tuesday, they also surveyed the store, medical clinic and hotel, ruling out any contamination at those sites.
Now consider the reverse:
Say state and local radiological and hazardous materials teams were summoned to the Sabia offices Friday morning.
Workers would not have left those premises until they had been decontaminated and screened. (Hence, no need to survey the store, clinic and hotels — as well as the cars those employees used.) By Friday evening, the public would have been told about the mishap. The survey of the Sabia offices would have been launched Saturday morning instead of noon Sunday.
The scope of resources available in eastern Idaho to respond to radiological incidents is impressive. Isn’t it mind-boggling to think those resources weren’t activated as soon as the incident occurred?
The feds should amend their protocols. When an incident occurs, the first call companies such as Sabia should make is to the NRC. The second should be 911.