Radiation accident in East Idaho acknowledged six months after it occurred

An October radiation accident at a waste processing facility on the U.S. Department of Energy’s desert site west of Idaho Falls drew concern this week, largely because it took nearly six months for either the DOE or contractor to publicly disclose the incident.

The accident happened Oct. 23 at the New Waste Calcining Facility, operated by contractor CH2M-WG Idaho, or CWI. It resulted in a small internal radioactive contamination of one worker and a weeks-long work stoppage for a portion of the facility, while an investigation and decontamination effort took place.

It was not until last week that DOE disclosed what happened. DOE officials made a 14-slide PowerPoint presentation to the Idaho National Laboratory Site Environmental Management Citizens Advisory Board’s meeting in Pocatello.

“It was the first time I had heard of it,” Advisory Board Chairman Herb Bohrer said this week.

Kerry Martin, the INL oversight regional manager for Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality, said Wednesday she also had not heard of the incident until last week, which she called “amazing.”

The accident occurred in and around Cell 308, a hot cell where workers remotely repackage transuranic waste. Workers were removing a “cell port cover,” in order to take material out of the cell after repackaging, according to the PowerPoint presentation.

A mistake in the process of removing the cover increased ventilation flow and reduced vacuum in the cell, which keeps airborne radioactivity inside. More issues with the ventilation system followed.

Monitors that sense airborne radioactivity, located in a corridor outside the cell, went off. Workers evacuated.

One worker later was found to have low levels of internal contamination from the incident, roughly the same as from a chest X-ray, CWI spokesman Erik Simpson said Wednesday. No other external contamination was found on nearby workers.

For several weeks, the contractor and U.S. Department of Energy examined what had gone wrong. The cause was determined to be a worker communication error coupled with two “facility anomalies,” Simpson said.

“Since that time, we conducted a fact-finding, we implemented a lessons-learned (process) and we revised procedures to make sure we don’t have a communication issue in the future,” Simpson said.

“We also fixed a software anomaly, and we fixed a problem with the ventilation piping that was uncovered,” he said. “The project is back in full swing, and is being undertaken without any further incident.”

Some 18 process improvements were made, Simpson said.

As a result of the accident, waste repackaging work in that portion of the facility was halted for seven weeks, according to the PowerPoint presentation.

It was not posted to DOE’s online accident reporting site, known as ORPS.

Simpson and DOE spokeswoman Danielle Miller said Wednesday that the incident did not meet a reporting threshold due to how much radiation exposure the worker received.

“I find it amazing that it’s not reportable,” Martin said.

The DEQ, Martin said, would not have been involved in investigating this particular incident, but still wants to be in the loop about such contamination events.

“(DOE) knows that we’re amazed,” she said. “We’re still talking about it, but I’m not sure there’s a lot we can do other than voice our displeasure.”

Bohrer said he was unsure why DOE had not detailed the incident at a previous meeting. The Citizens Advisory Board previously met in January, as well as November.

If the impact had “been a little greater,” the board would have wanted to know the details right away, he said.

“The question I asked (DOE), and one I continue to push on, is did we learn all the lessons we needed to learn from the lab problem with plutonium contamination at the (Materials and Fuels Complex)?” Bohrer said.

He was referring to the 2011 INL plutonium accident that resulted in 16 workers being exposed, and a series of lawsuits.

Another way such contractor accidents, as well as notable accomplishments, typically are reported to the public is via the DOE-Idaho Operations Summary. In years past, the summaries were sent out to stakeholders and the news media more frequently than once a month.

Last year, however, only six were sent out. One has been sent this year. But the most recent update, sent in January, only included incidents from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, prior to the October incident at the New Waste Calcining Facility. So far, no incident reports have been released covering the past six months.

“We’ve been working to get those out, but we’ve had some reductions in personnel,” Miller said. “So we’re working to get them out as quickly as we can, but it’s been a challenge to get them compiled.”