On October 23, 2014, one worker at the Idaho National Laboratory received internal radioactive contamination. The so-called “contamination event” was not reported to the public or State of Idaho until April 8, 2015.

What were workers doing and why?

On that Thursday afternoon, workers at the New Waste Calcining Facility (NWCF) were repackaging remote-handled transuranic waste so that it can eventually go to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico if that facility ever reopens (see more on the WIPP closure here). The Alliance has commended INL for continuing to make its plutonium-contaminated waste safer to manage by, for instance, improved packaging, even though it cannot be shipped to WIPP right now.


Removing the cover of a hot cell at INL’s New Waste Calcining Facility led to internal contamination of a worker there.

Remote-handled waste is very radioactive and humans can’t come in contact with it. Transuranic waste contains plutonium, which has long-term health impacts if it is ingested. Thus, the repackaging work was being done in a hot cell to protect workers. The hot cell is maintained as a vacuum to keep contamination confined. As workers started to remove material from the cell, they reached in through protective gloves (see photo) and took off the cell port lid. Taking the lid off significantly increased the ventilation flow through the cell, which reduced the vacuum. That shut down the building’s ventilation supply blower. Operators immediately replaced the cell cover, which decreased the inside pressure, and then restarted the supply blower. But restarting the blower without adjusting the exhaust dampers increased the cell’s pressure again and contamination escaped into the building corridors.

Contamination Aftermath

According to INL, no external contamination was found on any worker, but one worker received an internal dose. Affected areas of the building were decontaminated, and a number of process improvements were made. The decontamination efforts delayed the remote-handled repacking project by seven weeks. When Alliance staff and colleagues from New Mexico and South Carolina toured NWCF on March 2, 2015, we were told the facility had recently gone through a work slowdown, but were not told why.

Recently and for the first time, the DOE described the event publicly at the April 8 meeting of the INL Environmental Management Citizens Advisory Board (CAB). Response was swift. The representative from the State of Idaho was “amazed” that the State was not informed and even more puzzled that any internal contamination of a worker did not meet the threshold for posting through the DOE’s Occurrence Reporting and Processing System. Nor has it shown up in the DOE-Idaho Operations Summary, which have become far less regular the last few years, perhaps because of funding shortfalls, though INL usually gets about what DOE asks of Congress. In fact, Alliance staff objected to DOE in November 2014 that its Operations Summaries were not reporting any of the problems at the troubled plant that is supposed to suck sodium-bearing high-level waste out of buried tanks and dry it.

The head of the CAB raised the specter of the November 2011 plutonium accident at INL that contaminated 16 workers. The Alliance met with the DOE team that investigated that plutonium exposure during DC Days in the spring of 2012. During our meeting, one of the investigators noted that what he had learned about the accident led him to conclude that “INL cannot handle plutonium anymore.”

On April 19, the Idaho Falls Post Register, which has been fierce in its support for accepting two shipments of “research quantities” of commercial spent nuclear fuel, lamented the 6-month gap between the accident and its disclosure. In a Sunday editorial, the newspaper noted that governors Andrus and Batt point to public distrust of DOE when they oppose the shipments. The editorial concluded that the DOE “just proved Andrus and Batt right.”

What’s Next?

Former governors Andrus and Batt led the litigation that resulted in the 1995 ban on commercial spent nuclear fuel coming to Idaho. In March they filed a notice of intent to sue the DOE over the proposed shipments. Now the DOE is beginning an analysis of whether or not the proposed shipments require further environmental review. The initial draft analysis will be subject to 30 days of public review and comment, when it is released.

We will most certainly keep you informed and encourage you to let your local media and elected representatives know your views on bringing more nuclear waste into the state. In the meantime, when thinking of the dangerous nuclear material already in Idaho and the prospect for more, consider this; the DOE delivered its “Nuclear Energy Research and Development Roadmap” to Congress in April 2010. When discussing its approach to R&D facilities and infrastructure, the DOE bragged that it “concentrates the high-risk nuclear facilities at the remote Idaho site.”

Remote? Right near home.