Employee suffers radiation exposure at controversial Idaho nuclear waste site

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent
Image: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Getty

A worker was exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation after an accident on June 5 at a Department of Energy facility in Idaho where there have been multiple accidents in recent years. The June incident was not publicly disclosed at the time by the government or by Fluor Idaho, the contractor that runs the site.

The accident occurred at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex, which is run by Fluor Idaho, a DOE contractor. The facility is part of the Department of Energy’s 890-square-mile “Idaho site,” which includes facilities used for research and nuclear waste storage as well as the Idaho National Laboratory, described as “the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development.” The site has been used by the federal government for nuclear waste disposal since the 1950s, but in recent years, it has been the focus of concerns from state officials and watchdog groups who are alarmed at the volume of radioactive material being held there.

Erik Simpson, a spokesperson for Fluor Idaho, told Yahoo News on Friday that the company is conducting an “investigation of the event” and the Energy Department is “monitoring the activities of the contractor and providing resources to assist in the investigation.”

“The affected worker was wearing the prescribed personnel protective equipment (PPE) for the job task. As the worker was reaching across the glovebox tray, the worker felt a prick in the forearm. The employee immediately stopped work and discovered a puncture wound had penetrated the PPE,” Simpson said.

Simpson, who did not name the worker, said that “medical attention was provided” and the worker was able to return to work.

This 2017 photo shows the Idaho National Laboratory Transient Reactor Test Facility. (Photo: Chris Morgan/Idaho National Laboratory via AP)

“Because the incident occurred in a radiological area, applicable protocols were initiated, including radiological monitoring. The employee was released back to work and will continue to be monitored,” said Simpson.

Simpson also said that as a result of the incident, “a stop work has been declared on radiological work in gloveboxes and in other radiologically contaminated locations that involve the use of sharp tools or the potential to come into contact with sharp objects or material.”

“The stop work will continue while Fluor investigates the incident, evaluates personal protective equipment, and work methods,” said Simpson.

A friend of the worker also detailed the situation in a series of Facebook posts. Yahoo News is withholding the name of the worker and the worker’s friend to preserve their privacy.

According to the friend, the accident occurred when a “piece of metal cut through” the worker’s hazardous materials suit and lab coat. The friend described the incident as a “freak event” and said the worker underwent surgery on her forearm, which was the “penetration site.” The worker also was treated with chelation therapy to “flush her of plutonium and americium,” her friend said. Chelation is a medical procedure that removes toxic metals from the body. The worker’s friend also wrote that representatives from Washington, D.C., came to observe the treatment.

“None of her loved ones can go back due to security clearance and safety reasons,” said the friend.

The friend declined to discuss the incident with Yahoo News, and the worker could not be reached for comment.

This 2017 photo shows the Idaho National Laboratory Transient Reactor Test Facility. (Photo: Chris Morgan/Idaho National Laboratory via AP)

The Department of Energy did not respond to multiple requests from Yahoo News for further details about the accident.

This accident comes on the heels of a situation in the complex in April, when four barrels containing radioactive sludge ruptured. No one was injured. In an article published in a local paper, Fluor Idaho President Fred Hughes said personnel who responded did an “outstanding job” and said his company was conducting a “detailed investigation.” Hughes argued that there was no cause for alarm since the facility is “designed for this kind of work.”

“While the April 11 event was out of the ordinary, it is by no means a show-stopper with respect to our mission to characterize, treat, repackage and ship wastes out of Idaho. Fluor Idaho has both the outstanding trained staff and state-of-the-art facilities designed for this kind of work necessary to continue our important work for the DOE and Idaho citizens,” Hughes wrote.

But the Idaho site has generated opposition from local officials and watchdog groups. According to the Associated Press, the Department of Energy has missed multiple deadlines to move waste out of Idaho and has paid approximately $3.5 million in fines. The AP reported that the state has blocked the DOE from bringing research quantities of spent nuclear fuel to the site as a result of one of the missed deadlines.

Some of the opposition to further waste shipments stems from a series of safety incidents at the complex. In 2011, there was a high-profile incident at the Idaho National Laboratory where 16 employees were exposed to plutonium dust. That accident led to multiple lawsuits and an internal Energy Department probe.

A subsequent report by the Center for Public Integrity found that the 2011 incident came after warnings from staffers about dangerous conditions at the facility. The Center for Public Integrity also found that the 2011 incident “was preceded by two other serious instances of radioactive contamination at the lab … and that it was also followed by two additional, avoidable radioactive contaminations there.”

In this 2015 photo, nuclear waste is stored in underground containers at the Idaho National Laboratory. (Photo: AP/Keith Ridler)

Despite these issues, the DOE is planning to ship 7,000 cubic meters of nuclear waste from a site in Washington to the Idaho National Lab. Local politicians and a group called the Snake River Alliance are fighting that plan.

Snake River Alliance Nuclear Program Director Beatrice Brailsford told Yahoo News that the latest incident at the site adds to the concerns about additional waste shipments.

“We’ll always have nuclear waste that’s already happened, but we should not be compounding the problem,” Brailsford said.

She added that she was surprised the facility had not publicly disclosed the latest accident at the time. “I’m kind of shocked that INL [Idaho National Laboratory] has not said anything about it,” she said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated Fluor Idaho did not publicly disclose the incident. A spokesperson for the company said statements were provided to a local paper. The Idaho State Journal ran an item on the incident dated June 12. 


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