The Idaho National Laboratory has been in the news lately…and it’s not been good news. Here’s what the Alliance knows about two recent accidents at the Site and a little background on how we get information.

On Tuesday, November 8, 16 people were in the area where a plutonium fuel plate that had been used for civilian nuclear research at the Zero Power Physics Reactor (ZPPR; pronounced “zipper”) was being prepared for possible shipment to another DOE site. The fuel plate had been stored for years wrapped in plastic and was known to be dented. It was about the size of a regular business envelope and a quarter inch thick. Because of the damage and the way it had been stored, the workers double checked with their supervisor before they unwrapped it. As the plastic was removed, the workers saw a few grains of powder. That was a sign that the plutonium had oxidized (a known hazard when plutonium is wrapped in plastic for a long time) and was therefore likely to become airborne. The workers, none of whom were wearing breathing protection, began to evacuate as air alarms went off.

Of the 16 employees potentially exposed, seven received external contamination on their skin, which was decontaminated. Nasal swipes were positive for plutonium in six employees. All 16 were given lung scans, which are not sensitive enough to show plutonium but do show whether or not americium-241 is present. Am-241 is a daughter product of plutonium and its presence is a sure indicator of the presence of plutonium. Follow-up scans of three employees confirmed Am-241 in one worker’s lungs. Some of the employees accepted treatment for internal exposure, and all will continue to be monitored to determine their individual doses.

INL’s Emergency Operations Center sent out the first notice at 2:40 pm, about an hour and a half after the accident. The first notice (of four that afternoon) had no details, and some of the later notices included details that turned out to be incorrect.

All told, INL sent out six releases on the plutonium exposure by the end of the second day, by which time its Emergency Operations Center had started reporting on a second incident, this one at the Sodium Boiler Building, a part of the Experimental Breeder Reactor II. ZPPR and EBR II are near one another and near INL’s eastern border. The second incident was an explosion of the metallic sodium that was used to cool EBR II. Workers had began treating the sodium the day before by intentionally putting slightly acidic liquid into pipes in the Sodium Boiler Building so residual sodium, which reacts with water or other liquids, would be safer to package and dispose of as EBR II is torn down.  No one was hurt by the explosion and all the workers in the facility were evacuated. INL sent out four releases on the sodium explosion.

The Snake River Alliance gets a steady stream of press releases from the Site and, since 2006, bi-weekly operations summaries. We haven’t always been consistent about posting the summaries to our web site, and we will improve that. When INL’s Emergency Operations Center kicks in, it’s always bad news such as range fires or accidents. Any “off-normal” occurrence could end up harming someone, and we want to respect that. But we think it’s sometimes better to pass on information as we receive it by posting INL’s notices to our web site.

The two recent incidents at INL involved different crews, projects, buildings, and contractors. But together they underlined a single overriding fact. People at the Idaho National Laboratory work with very dangerous materials. Their safety must be paramount.