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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Through his digging, Ralph started to change in ways that scared Jodi. A few days after the exposure, she got home from work and jumped in the shower as Stanton stepped out. He stayed in the bathroom, getting dressed and talking to Jodi about his recent discoveries.

In mid-sentence he stopped talking.

Jodi figured her husband walked into the bedroom and would come back. She waited and didn't hear anything more.

"Ralph?" she yelled over the running water.

"What?" he responded.

"Where'd you go? Did you walk into the bedroom?" she asked.

"Jodi, I haven't left. I'm right here," Ralph replied.

"Ralph, you were just talking to me You were in mid-sentence," Jodi remembered saying.

And he said, "I was talking to you?"

Jodi knew things were not good. Ralph continuously had trouble holding onto his thoughts and found it difficult to concentrate. Through hours of interviews with BW he peppered conversations with the question, "Where was I?"

Stanton's obsession only continued to grow as he started reaching out even further, calling Washington, D.C., calling the FBI, looking for anyone who would listen. Jodi started to miss him.

"Up to that point," she said, "I was the middle of [his] whole universe. It was him and me and the kids. And when [the exposure] happened, it all changed. It's like none of that even existed. ... He said, 'You have no idea what I'm going through. I can't talk to you. You weren't there when the alarm went off.' So here he is with his thing and here I am with the three kids and trying to keep myself focused at work and keep the house going and the finances. I am trying to be the mother and the father and help with homework and pay the bills. Life as we knew it and normality is gone.

"And to know that they knew [about the failed cladding]," Jodi added in tears. "To know that they could have prevented this infuriates me."

Ralph Stanton, surrounded by daughter Marissa (left) and wife Jodi (right), has spent the past two and a half years fighting the Idaho National Laboratory frrom his family's kitchen table. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Ralph Stanton, surrounded by daughter Marissa (left) and wife Jodi (right), has spent the past two and a half years fighting the Idaho National Laboratory frrom his family's kitchen table.

The Stantons' anger eventually spilled over into the pages of the Idaho Fall Post Register. On a Sunday in mid-August 2013, a large, above-the-fold photograph showed Ralph and Jodi sitting on their couch--Ralph's eyes downcast and Jodi's head in her hands. The headline: "Living in Fear." Below the photo, a quote from Jodi in large font: "It makes me so angry that they have turned my world upside down and they won't take responsibility. As long as the milestones are met, as long as their bonuses are met, human life (doesn't matter) out there."

Exactly a week later, Grossenbacher wrote a guest editorial in the same paper.

"We must ... address seriously inaccurate statements that call public safety into question and threaten to undermine this community's trust in BEA and how it operates INL," he wrote. "All employees involved in the November 2011 exposure were checked for external contamination before being cleared to go home. No affected employees left the site with detectable contamination on their skin or clothes."

Grossenbacher stated that "no dose exceeded the safety threshold for radiation workers."

"I truly regret that this family is feeling such distress and has resisted our offers to address their concerns," Grossenbacher wrote. "However, I reject their assertion that BEA hasn't taken responsibility for this incident and doesn't value human life."

Three months after Grossenbacher's letter to the editor, the printed argument continued. This time, the letter came from Jodi, who, using fewer than 300 words, poured out her frustrations in a flood of raw accusations, a rant on how she felt BEA failed at every turn and a demand that the company believe her when she said her house was poisoned.

Because of all the press, Dossett said she went to each of the 16 workers who experienced the 2011 exposure and offered them in-home surveys in December 2013. Four of them took the offer. The surveys--conducted by Tennessee-based Oak Ridge University Laboratory, which is funded by DOE and run by UT-Battelle, LLC.--showed nothing abnormal.

Stanton wrote an email to Dossett recommending the company that cleaned his carpets less than a month after the exposure also be surveyed, as well as the houses the carpet cleaners went to next.

"Sharon, it is my expectation that you and I will visit the local business owner and home owners together," Stanton wrote. "We will explain what happened. Should they ask why DOE and BEA sat on this information for so long, I expect that you will answer them truthfully and honestly. Sharon, its time for the truth. The public deserves to know and the employees deserve to know. ITS THE ETHICAL AND TRANSPARENT THING TO DO!!! [sic]"

Dossett didn't reply to his email. Instead, another lab employee emailed Stanton back, letting him know he was on the schedule for the following morning to have his home surveyed by Oak Ridge. He refused.

Stanton's email exchange with Dossett reflected his increasing willingness to speak out to upper management. He filed the whistleblower complaint alleging that BEA created an unsafe work environment and then--he alleges--retaliated against him by forcing him to see a psychologist. He pushed the lab internally to admit contamination doses were higher than reported, and appeared on the front page of the paper. Stanton said his superiors started to chip away at his credibility.

His annual performance reviews used to say things like, in 2010: "Ralph was recognized for his ability to work safely and promote safety among the crew by being awarded the 'You Shine' safety award," and, in 2011: "Ralph takes policies and procedures seriously. ... Ralph has a perfect safety record this year. Ralph keeps the issue of safety on his fellow worker's minds at all times. ... Ralph was commended for his courage to speak up and be heard. One of Ralph's most admirable qualities is he maintains the highest standards of personal integrity."

By 2012, his scores had fallen to 1's and 2's on all marks, from "Safety" and "Teamwork" to "Respect" and "Integrity."

He started being written up for things like having his feet on the desk. He was written up when inappropriate comments were made about upper management and he "took no action to correct the conduct. [Though] it was reported that you did not make the comments," the report stated.

On Dec. 23, 2013, Stanton received a letter from INL with three words across the top: "TERMINATION OF EMPLOYMENT." Grossenbacher told BW that he was twice seen sleeping on the job, a claim Stanton bitterly rejects.

But his relationship with INL is far from over. He's waiting for mediations between him and the company by May 2014. If that doesn't go well, he expects his day in court next spring. He's continued his personal investigation with vigor.

Jodi still works out at the INLDOE site, but she continues to worry every day about her husband and possible long-term health problems that could crop up from the exposure.

"It hurts me deeply to have to see him go through what he's gone though, physically, mentally, emotionally. If I could do anything to take it back, and change it, or talk it away, I would," Jodi said. "But I can't. All I can do now is try and prevent this from happening to some other family. This will tear a family apart. This will destroy a marriage. All because someone wants a bonus."

The stresses on the Stanton family are obvious. Sitting at their dining room table, 23 family photos hang on the wall behind Ralph, Jodi and Marissa--photos of their older son and his wife, photos of the whole family embracing against a backdrop of autumn leaves. They're typical family portraits. Everyone in them looks happy. But no one is smiling now.

UPDATE, May 2, 2014: Corrects to clarify exhaust fan outage, employment of Jodi Stanton, quote attribution for John Grossenbacher and minor details throughout. Boise Weekly regrets the errors.
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