Half-Life: How an Accident at the Idaho National Laboratory Changed a Family 

Years after he was exposed to radiation, a man fights to tell his story

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The alarm was terrifying. It took the 16 workers at the Zero Power Physics Reactor (ZPPR) a moment to realize what it was. It sounded like a fire alarm, but working for the Idaho National Laboratory at this high-security facility, handling fuel-grade plutonium, the alarm was bad news. Worse than a fire alarm. Contamination had gone airborne.

That Tuesday morning, Nov. 8, 2011, had started simply enough: Stanton, who had worked for INL for almost a decade, was to enter the ZPPR vault--a giant concrete refrigerator with one of the largest stockpiles of plutonium in the world--pull out 33 plutonium plates and repackage them to be sent to another laboratory.

Stanton slid his white lab coat over his broad shoulders and buttoned it down his thick middle. From the vault, he pulled four tightly clamped metal boxes called clamshells, each the size of a kid's lunchbox, and brought them over to his work area, called a "hood." The hood looked more like a salad bar than somewhere to handle radioactive materials, but that's where he unpacked the clamshells, inside each of which rested a plate of fuel-grade plutonium the size of a Hershey's bar, sealed in stainless steel.

For Steve Braase, the morning was hectic. He didn't expect this job until later in the week, but management bumped it up a few days.

As health physicist, it was Braase's job to check all the safety equipment in the room before Stanton could start pulling out the plates. He constantly looked for contamination that could danger his co-workers. Finding all his instruments in order except for one radiation monitor, the ZPPR facility's ventilation system was placed in "Operate Mode."

But Stanton and a dozen other co-workers stopped when they saw a bright yellow label bearing a red haz-mat symbol on one of the clamshells. "ATTENTION: RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL," it read, and beneath, in delicate black handwriting, it said, "Plate wrapped in plastic."

click to enlarge The Idaho National Laboratory facility where Ralph Stanton and 15 other workers were exposed to airborne plutonium in November 2011. - U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY
  • U.S. Department of Energy
  • The Idaho National Laboratory facility where Ralph Stanton and 15 other workers were exposed to airborne plutonium in November 2011.

According to Stanton, Braase, INL officials and a U.S. Department of Energy investigation following the incident, the shift supervisor called two tiers of management, asking if the team should open the clamshell. Though this task was common, Stanton had never seen a plate wrapped in plastic before. Management gave workers the OK to continue.

Braase was nervous about going forward with the work. He wiped the outside of the clamshell with a piece of paper and fed the swab into a radiation detector, but found no trace of contamination.

Wearing two pairs of gloves and standing behind a plate of lead shielding, Stanton took the clamshell into his hood. Several filters lined the back wall of the hood, but a few months before, Stanton had noticed three of the four [backup] exhaust fans weren't working. He didn't like that, and had brought it up to his supervisors, but they hadn't been fixed yet. He didn't push it.

He opened the clamshell to reveal the plutonium plate wrapped in several layers of plastic and duct tape. It had sat in the vault like that for more than 30 years. Braase again swabbed for contamination and, again, found none.

Stanton sawed through the first layer with a box cutter. He turned over the plate and cut off the next. He flipped it over three or four times, getting closer to the stainless steel that separated him from the plutonium.

Braase said he heard fellow nuclear facility operator Brian Simmons, who has refused to comment to the press pending mediation in a court case, say, "I seen something fall out." As the workers gathered around, Braase heard him say it again. "Yeah, I seen something fall out. We've got powder."

Stanton said this is where he "puckered." He looked at Simmons, thinking, "Man, I hope that's not what we think it is, or we're hosed."

Stanton feared the contamination was alpha radiation. While alpha radiation isn't strong enough to penetrate someone's skin or clothes, it can be extremely poisonous if inhaled.

Braase grabbed a sample of the powder and threw a wet towel over it to keep it from going airborne. He reached for a handheld alpha radiation detector. Normally, the detector has to be a quarter inch away from the subject to pick up radiation. As far as three inches from the swab, the needle bounced into the red.

"Stop the work," Braase said. Based on the distance from the sample and the reading on his monitor, he knew his colleagues were being dosed with far more radiation than they could safely--or legally--be exposed to.

"We've got to get Ralphie out of there," he said.

But Braase couldn't let Stanton out of the hood until he was checked for contamination. Running a detector over his Stanton's body, Braase was shocked to find alpha radiation on his shoulder.

"No, Ralph, you can't come out," Braase said. What he thought was, "Oh shit."

At that moment an air monitor--installed 15 feet away and upstream of the ventilation--started screaming. That was the workers' cue to evacuate immediately. The contamination was airborne.

Everyone but Braase and Stanton rushed out of the room. Stanton stripped off his gauntlets and gloves and Braase sealed his hands inside a plastic bag.

By 11:15 a.m., less than 10 minutes after Stanton cut through the plastic wrapping on the plate, the ZPPR workroom was empty. Sixteen employees waited in a control room for decontamination.

click to enlarge The container of plutonium that Ralph Stanton opened, only to discover that it had oxidized into a powder which then contaminated the facility. - U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY
  • U.S. Department of Energy
  • The container of plutonium that Ralph Stanton opened, only to discover that it had oxidized into a powder which then contaminated the facility.

Thirty-two miles away, Jodi Stanton was waiting, too. An employee at INL's buried waste facility Jodi, who works at a buried waste facility on the DOE's Idaho site, was on her lunch break, waiting for her husband's call. Married for 23 years, he called her every lunch hour and they'd talk on the phone for 40 minutes or so, about plans for the weekend or what the kids were doing. Family stuff. But on Nov. 8, 2011, he didn't call. She thought it was weird, but figured her husband was busy and went back to work.

The hours dragged on as Stanton watched his co-workers get checked for contamination. The alpha detector moved at half an inch per second, a hair's width from their bodies.

The decontamination team found contamination in Braase's hair and all over his face. He remembered feeling like Pigpen from Peanuts, surrounded by a cloud he couldn't see. Every movement he made stirred the particles more.

A few hours later, Stanton, Braase, Simmons and another worker with the highest levels of contamination were led to a room lined with beds. Beside each bed was an IV drip, containing a chemical solution meant to absorb heavy metals in their bloodstream and prevent radiation poisoning.

To Stanton, it was "surreal," like a science fiction novel. Braase was scared.

At 4:30 p.m., Jodi finished her work out in the field and headed to her work trailer. A phone call came in from a number she didn't recognize, but she knew it was her husband. He told her he'd been involved in an accident, but he couldn't say anything more. He told her he would talk to her when he could, that he was on his way to be checked by medical staff.

Right after she hung up, she got another call from a friend.

"It was on the news, it was just on the news," her friend told her. "There's been a radiation accident at work and Ralph was involved. It was in his facility."

Jodi felt stunned. Then she got angry. Something happened to her husband and nobody had called to tell her--even four hours after the incident and even though she worked for the same company.

Then, she fell apart.

"I've got to go," she told her boss. She fled to the medical facility where Ralph was, but couldn't get in to see him. They told her, "Just go home. It'll be a long night."

She had an hour's drive ahead of her to get home. She called her mom, but her mom couldn't understand her because of the crying. Once at home, Jodi had to try to explain to her 14-year-old daughter what happened, without even knowing herself.

She sat on their couch facing the door and she waited, staring at the door.

Just after midnight, Ralph walked in. Jodi met him at the door.

"You're good?" she asked.

"I'm OK," Ralph replied.

"No, I mean, you're good? They cleared you to come home. They said you're good to come home?" Jodi said.

"Yes," he said.

Jodi grabbed her husband, held him around his shoulders and cried, kissed his face, kissed his ears and helped him in. Stanton peeled off the surgical greens the INL sent him home in and spent the night sicker than he's ever been in his life. So sick, he thought he was going to die.

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