Questions Remain in the Case of the Tossed-Out INL Radioactive Waste Filters

The Department of Energy says it has no idea why an unidentified employee at the Idaho National Laboratory tossed out critical filters from eight drums of radioactive waste at the INL facility, but officials acknowledge the action was serious, and that the incident could have contaminated unknown numbers of workers at the site. Read more for an Associated Press account of the incident, and a chilling critique by the home-town newspaper.

Idaho radioactive waste containers had filters removed
By The Associated Press
May 22, 2008

IDAHO FALLS — A U.S. Department of Energy investigation into the removal and discarding of filters from eight drums containing radioactive waste at an eastern Idaho nuclear facility has determined that the incident was not an act of sabotage.

However, officials offered no explanation as to why an employee removed the filters, creating the potential for contaminating other workers.

The company responsible for processing the nuclear waste, Bechtel BWXT Idaho, said an employee confessed to removing the filters, according to Bechtel spokesman Rick Dale.
Officials have refused to identify the individual, who no longer works at the facility.

No one was contaminated, the company said.

Bechtel immediately increased security after the April 9 incident was discovered.
Those procedures included requiring permission from management before employees could enter the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project facility at the Idaho National Laboratory, an 890-square-mile federal nuclear research area.

Once inside, the company also required employees to maintain visual contact with each other. Those precautions have since been discontinued.

The precautions were put in place according to two internal company memos obtained by the Post Register, one sent to Bechtel employees on April 10 and another on April 14.

“I cannot overstate the seriousness of this incident,” Bechtel President and General Manager Jeff Mousseau wrote in the April 10 memo. “Whether deliberate or an accident, had there been a release of radioactivity from these drums, the people who would have been exposed to potential contamination would have been our fellow workers.”

The company prepares transuranic waste for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. Transuranic waste includes building, laboratory and other debris contaminated with nuclear material.

Earlier this year, the Energy Department announced plans to make the Idaho National Laboratory the nation’s primary processing center for transuranic waste from 14 nuclear sites that don’t have their own processing capabilities.

Brad Bugger, a Department of Energy spokesman based in Idaho Falls, said the person who removed the filters and discarded them outside the facility was interviewed by the company and officials with the Energy Department’s Office of Inspector General.

“The folks at Bechtel interviewed him,” Bugger said. “The folks at the IG interviewed him. They came to the conclusion he wasn’t doing it to hurt anyone, so that’s why they don’t consider it an act of sabotage.”

“You’d have to ask the individual what his motivation was,” said Bugger, noting the agency will not release the person’s name.

He said the FBI also investigated and that no charges have been filed.

A routine inspection discovered the missing filters, he said.

Bugger said about 8,000 people work at the INL.

“There’s absolutely no guarantee in this world against any individual choosing to do something wrong,” he said.

“Each company that works for us has their own procedures that they follow when they hire employees to make sure employees are responsible individuals,” he said. “There are also assistance programs available.”

Bechtel’s Dale declined further comment about the employee.

“From the company’s point of view, we conducted our investigation and concluded it was not an act of sabotage, and that the individual responsible was identified, and the individual no longer works for the company,” he said.

He said the public was in no danger.

“We did notify the proper authorities,” he said. “This was an internal incident. The public was never in any type of danger and, as with any investigation, you are limited on the amount of information that can be disclosed.”

Juan Becerra, media coordinator for the FBI’s Salt Lake City Office, told the newspaper that the U.S. attorney for Idaho declined to prosecute the case.

Felicia Jones, media liaison with the Energy Department’s Office of Inspector General, said, “We can neither confirm nor deny any other information regarding that case.”

By The Idaho Falls Post-Register
May 22, 2008

What got buried out at the site?
JEERS to the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel BWXT Idaho. They buried an act of sabotage that could have put workers at the Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project at risk. Only after the Post Register’s Corey Taule uncovered the April 9 incident did Bechtel come clean Wednesday — six weeks later.

Site officials counter no one was hurt and the public was never at risk.
But that glosses over a glaring fact: An employee had unsupervised access to drums containing radioactive waste just long enough to remove filters that help vent gases. Is this a systemic problem?

Had the incident gone undiscovered, those drums could have vented radioactive contamination.
Officials took all the proper steps — alerting authorities, tracking down the suspect, contacting the FBI and the Inspector General of the DOE — but one: Telling you.

It suggests they had something to hide.

Sure, the DOE noted the incident in an April 22 news release. Again, that was two weeks too late. And the affair was among a half-dozen items listed. The write-up all but suggested the filters came unhinged all by themselves. Nowhere did the DOE say that an employee deliberately removed them.