Those who experienced the Cold War remember what the world was like. A generation of American patriots spent their careers making sure our country stayed ahead of the Soviet Union’s growing conventional and nuclear arsenal.
We take pride in their accomplishments, from the beginning of the Manhattan Project in 1942 to today, when 19 percent of the nation’s electricity — and 63 percent of its carbon-free electricity — is generated by nuclear power.
I understand firsthand their dedication and sacrifice. My father worked as a nuclear weapons assembler and craftsman. My mom directed and tracked the movement of nuclear weapons parts around warehouses. Many employees at Idaho National Laboratory also are second-generation Cold War warriors.
And so I’d like all Idahoans to understand something: For many of us, this is personal. Nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of our workforce. These are our friends and neighbors, our parents, children, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins.
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With the clarity of decades of experience and knowledge, we do things differently now. At the time, the nuclear industry was in the early stages of its maturation process. Think of the automobile industry prior to seat belts and air bags.
Since those early years, the Department of Energy and the national labs have implemented significant, robust measures to ensure our people are protected when conducting this very important work. As pointed out in a recent Idaho Statesman column by Rocky Barker, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program is available to Cold War workers, and to their families.
At INL, we are working with DOE and its other national labs to make sure we are protecting our workers. It is our top priority every single day.
We do this by emphasizing a safety culture taught to us by the experiences of the past. INL leaders demonstrate a commitment to safety in their decisions and behaviors. INL employees embrace personal accountability, avoid complacency and are encouraged to challenge conditions or activities that could compromise safety.
When mistakes are made, it’s incumbent upon lab leadership and employees to learn lessons and implement changes to ensure mistakes are not repeated.
Barker’s column, and an accompanying McClatchy story, focused primarily upon events that took place nearly a half-century ago.
I’d like to address two recent events at INL that made headlines.
In 2011, workers at the lab’s Zero Power Physics Reactor were exposed to radioactive plutonium oxide. As former INL Director John Grossenbacher said publicly, this should not have happened.
INL leadership took seriously this event and agreed with the DOE report that concluded the accident was preventable. As a result, the facility was closed for nine months and corrective actions were implemented.
In August 2014, a small leak occurred at the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative Glovebox. This was discovered and brought to light through the diligence of our conscientious employees. It was self-reported. The leak was well below regulatory limits, but INL leadership stopped work in the glovebox and initiated an investigation.
Significant controls were implemented, including a novel leak-testing methodology. Development of this methodology not only benefited INL, but also national labs across the DOE complex.
The vital work we do here — safeguarding national security, designing tank armor to protect our combat troops, protecting our electric grid, and helping produce the clean, carbon-free energy that will power our future — gets accomplished only if INL’s nearly 4,000 researchers, technicians, engineers and support staff have confidence they will return safely to their families.
We believe in our mission. We value our people. We learn from the past, and because of that Idaho’s national laboratory continues to have the honor of taking on the big energy and security challenges that will determine what kind of world we leave our children and grandchildren.
Beierschmitt is deputy director at Idaho National Laboratory.