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

Page 4 of 5

An Investigation, An Obsession

Life's definitely never going to be the same for Stanton, who says that a culture of unsafe working conditions doomed him to this nightmare, in which he returns again and again to the belief that some form of cancer will crop up and kill him in the next 10 years.

In some ways, a Department of Energy investigation mirrors his safety concerns.

Driving through the high desert of Eastern Idaho, it's easy to feel like there are secret powers hidden in the scrubby, rock-studded expanse. And you'd be right. Spread over 890 square miles is the Idaho National Laboratory--an amorphous entity encompassing dozens of facilities and 4,000 employees, many drawn from nearby Idaho Falls.

Though administered by the U.S. Department of Energy, INL has since 2005 been run by contractor Battelle Energy Alliance. Among its hundreds of projects and roles, INL specializes in nuclear material storage and research, with common customers like the National Nuclear Security Administration and NASA, as well as TerraPower--a company owned by Bill Gates.

Back in 1992, the Zero Power Physics Reactor--where the exposure happened--was taken out of operation. It sat abandoned for the next 13 years until BEA moved in and reopened the site. Containing metric tons of fuel- and weapons-grade plutonium, scientists from all over the world came to run tests at ZPPR. And they had no major problems in the facility until that November day in 2011 when plutonium oxide spilled out of Stanton's hands. Two days after the exposure, the DOE launched an investigation into the incident, with findings that left Stanton feeling bitter and betrayed.

"The board concluded that this accident was preventable and that, over time, a number of opportunities had been missed that could have prevented the accident," the investigative report stated in its opening summary.

The report, which resulted in $412,000 in fines for BEA, scolded the company for "not recogniz[ing] the hazards associated with the possibility of releasing plutonium material."

Grossenbacher agreed.

"Frankly, I don't think we paid enough respect to that uncertainty and the hazard," he told BW. "It's at all levels. It's at the managerial level and I certainly accept responsibility, and it's at the worker level, too."

The report found much of the equipment wasn't working during the exposure, from missing alarms to cracks in the ventilation system to faulty decontamination techniques.

Phil Breidenbach, who manages nuclear operations at the lab, told BW that "anytime you have a complex facility, there's going to be times when the equipment isn't working, and we can normally compensate for that and safely continue."

But during the exposure, he added, the stars aligned in such a way that too much equipment was out of service and couldn't safely compensate.

"That was a mistake," Breidenbach said.

Grossenbacher said part of their error at the lab was, "saying it bluntly, complacency. We had done this operation many, many times. ... We were set up for failure and we didn't recognize it."

The report found the continuous air monitor--the alarm that signalled workers to evacuate--wasn't good enough. There used to be an alarm in the hood that would have detected the alpha radiation immediately, rather than leaving the workers exposed to airborne plutonium for almost five minutes, but it was taken out before the incident due to cost. BEA concluded that the continuous air monitor, installed 15 feet from the hood where the plutonium plates were handled, would be enough. The DOE report disagreed.

To add to that, the report dinged BEA for not fully training employees in the event of an uncontrolled airborne contamination. From 2010-2011, only one radiological drill was performed at the ZPPR facility.

"Medical and radiological staff stated that none of the drills that were performed would have prepared them to recognize and respond to the human aspects (emotional trauma) of such a radiological event," the report said.

Urine and fecal samples of the most contaminated workers were sent to another lab, but weren't "properly handled ... due to a verbal miscommunication." so the samples were thrown out. Those samples, Stanton contends, would have shown the highest doses of plutonium and americium.

Despite all this, Grossenbacher said part of the day-to-day operations include constantly weighing safety risks--and, in the wake of the DOE investigation, he added that BEA took 80 corrective actions after the exposure, leaving the ZPPR facility out of commission for nine months. He's confident that INL is a safer place to work than ever.

"An extreme example is when NASA has to make the decision to launch or not," Grossenbacher said. "It's never a perfect decision, they weigh all the considerations and they make the best judgment that they can. And for whatever reason, if their judgment goes wrong, the results are unacceptable. ... We make these kind of decisions frequently, and we get it right the overwhelming majority of the time. Our goal is always, no matter what happens, even given that people make mistakes and machines break, that in the end, nobody gets hurt."

Stanton certainly felt that he had been hurt.

As the DOE launched its investigation, another investigation of sorts began at his dining room table. He filled filing boxes with documents, memoranda and internal emails. He was on the phone constantly--with other workers involved in the exposure incident, with friends in other facilities, with retired INL employees, with past whistleblowers. Stanton became consumed with piecing together the events the led up to his exposure and the ways BEA could have prevented it.

In his search, Stanton discovered one letter in particular that devastated him. It was written by an independent safety review committee chairman named Ted Lewis.

"I feel there is a potential for finding failed [stainless steel] cladding on the ZPPR Plutonium-239 plates that are now in storage in the ZPPR vault in 'sealed containers,' (clamshells)," the letter read. "My concern is I think the potential for discovering the failed [stainless steel] cladding plates in the Hood is greater than the facility and senior management realizes."

The letter spelled out the exposure that happened to Stanton, and it had been presented to Breidenbach and Grossenbacher upper management in 2009, and once more to Breidenbach a mere five months before the accident.

"Ted [the author of the letter] actually came into my office," Breidenbach told BW. "It was kind of an informal meeting where Ted was talking to me about several things. It was one issue in a 15-minute meeting. In hindsight, clearly that was a missed opportunity to prevent this event from happening. It was one of several missed opportunities that would have prevented it."

Grossenbacher said he was also in that meeting. Though he wasn't at the meeting, Grossenbacher said that Stanton's interpretation is taking it too far.

"This letter, when it's looked at outside the context of what goes on here every day, creates the image that someone ran in here and said, 'No, stop, danger, danger, danger.'" Grossenbacher said. "That's not the case."

The two Breidenbach recalled the meeting as cordial and "soft-spoken."

Despite the faulty safety measures, Breidenbach said one simple action could have prevented the exposure: Stanton and others could have stopped the work once they found the plastic-wrapped plate.

"I'm not a rocket scientist or a Ph.D.," Grossenbacher added, "but if I'm a rad-con tech and I think, 'Well, what happens to this stuff after 30 years of being wrapped in plastic, anybody know?' And if the answer is no, I would say, 'You know what, let's stop.'"

Stanton underscores that his supervisors told him to proceed; what's more, he takes BEA to task for never warning workers about the potentially faulty stainless steel cladding. He figured addressing the issue would have cost millions of dollars and put the facility out of commission for some time, stopping the large bonuses he claims management was getting from these "milestone jobs"--jobs where bonuses are given for meeting tight deadlines.

Reading that letter, Stanton "just went crazy," he said.

"You've got problems with the work room's ventilation," he added, "three out of four exhaust fans aren't working, the upstream alpha alarm is 15 feet away, the other alpha alarm was removed from the hood. So the only thing you have to protect you is the cladding around the plutonium. That's the only safety component left to protect the worker. Now you know that three years prior, they find out they have an issue with the cladding. So what do you have left to protect the worker? Nothing."

The DOE's report referenced Lewis' letter several times, each time stating that, "its significance was not recognized and no action was taken."

"BEA continued operation of the ZPPR Facility with known safety basis deficiencies and without adequately analyzing the hazard to the worker," the report said.

"But you manage the risk," Grossenbacher countered. "There's always the implication that because of cost and schedule, we're going to compromise safety and the answer to that is no, never. Now we do consider cost and schedule when we balance those controls, or we'd never get any work done."

The work Braase performed as health physicist has left him struggling with guilt, even years after the exposure.

"It stressed me out so bad to think I was the head health physicist," Braase said. "I took a lot of the blame on myself for letting it happen. I took it really, really hard."

A recent doctor's visit pegged Braase's blood pressure at 151 over 95. Skinny and nervous, the middle-aged man was put on two different medications to treat depression. He lives with his mom now, taking care of her with the same sense of seriousness he had on the day of the exposure--the same seriousness he carries in every aspect of his life, from clinging to his job to managing his budget. Repeatedly adjusting his bifocals and the silver chain around his neck, he said he never feels like going fishing anymore.

"They let him take the blame," Stanton said of Braase, "when they're the ones who knew those plates were bad."

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