Letters from the West

A trip into Idaho’s plutonium warehouse

Jon Johnston uses an alpha radiation detector on Statesman reporter Rocky Barker after touring a glovebox room at INL's Fuel Manufacturing Facility.
Jon Johnston uses an alpha radiation detector on Statesman reporter Rocky Barker after touring a glovebox room at INL's Fuel Manufacturing Facility. For the Idaho Statesman

It’s not easy to get into Idaho’s plutonium warehouse.

When you enter the Material and Fuels Complex at the Idaho National Laboratory, you go through a front gate where they check your name against a list. Then you go through security, where they give you a dosimeter and make sure you are a U.S. citizen.

I was visiting INL, an 890-square-mile federal reservation the size of Delaware, with photographer Chad Estes to get photographs for McClatchy’s series on nuclear workers. “Irradiated: The hidden legacy of 70 years of atomic weaponry” is available now at IdahoStatesman.com and will start Sunday in the Idaho Statesman print edition. I contributed to the series that looks at the many nuclear workers the federal government says suffered from their role in winning the Cold War.

As a reporter for the Idaho Falls Post Register in the 1980s, I came here often. The complex was then called Argonne National Laboratory West, and scientists and engineers were seeking to build a new generation nuclear reactor, the Integral Fast Reactor.

I was here on April 3, 1986, when Argonne technicians simulated a nuclear accident — similar, it turns out, to the one that caused the meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011. In 1986, the Experimental Breeder Reactor II shut itself down, even with its normal shutdown devices disabled, proving it was inherently safe. The Clinton administration killed the project and INL contractor Battelle took over operations in 2005.

For our October visit, we went through a security monitor that also measures for contamination with nuclear material such as plutonium. We were met at security by Tim Hyde, director of Fuel Fabrication and Nuclear Materials Management. We were swabbed to test us for explosives and special nuclear material — which means plutonium and uranium that can be made into a bomb. On the way in and out they checked us for radiation. First alpha, which can’t penetrate the skin and is a health threat only if people are exposed internally, and then beta and gamma, which have rays that penetrate skin, bones and other material.

We got a second dosimeter as we entered this area, because safety reviews determined it was a place where a criticality was “credible.” That means we were in an area where they had determined that, in some scenarios, plutonium or uranium could be brought together in a way to begin the critical reaction that takes place in a nuclear reactor. They wanted to have two dosimeters on each person in the unlikely event that a criticality occurred.

You don’t want to be there when that happens.

Two armed guards accompanied us at all times, because we were entering one of the largest plutonium and special nuclear materials warehouses in the nation. Here, scientists could take grams of rare metals such as neptunium off the shelf for use in fuel research or other research. It also has plutonium from the Zero Power Physics Reactor, which was on the same site decades ago.

I toured ZPPR in the 1980s. It had a wall of plutonium you could walk past, where scientists could test different configurations of nuclear fuel for the Integral Fast Reactor and other designs. In 2011, that room was where Ralph Stanton and 15 other workers were unpacking the ZPPR fuel that had been stored away 30 years before — and the 16 were contaminated. We tell Ralph’s story in the online report and in the Statesman next week.

We then went through a third security point and a monitor, much like in an airport, which also detects nuclear material. Then we passed through a thick vault door to enter the Fuel Manufacturing Facility, where several gloveboxes — advanced glass boxes that let workers handle nuclear materials — are located.

The first was the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative Glovebox, where in August 2014 there was a radioactive material release. The leak wasn’t discovered until that September, because the fixed-air sampling system — which uses a filter that has to be removed and tested — takes five days to test.

Other monitors, including an air monitor, detect when levels of radiation become unsafe.

The August 2014 leak from one of the gloveboxes was well below regulatory limits, but it was still detectable, Hyde said. The leak prompted officials to shut down the glovebox and begin an investigation.

“We discovered the manufacturer didn’t fully understand how the system was behaving at detection levels,” Hyde said.

Even though the problem has been fixed and test operations have been conducted on new monitoring equipment designed to detect a low-level leak immediately, workers wear protective gear when they go into the room.

But since the 2011 accident that contaminated Stanton and others, Hyde said, managers are being extra careful and installed protocols far stronger than in 2011.

The challenge that INL and other Department of Energy sites have is that their up-and-down safety record erodes trust. That’s costly for taxpayers today, but even more costly for the 396 INL workers who likely died from cancer and other illnesses because of exposure to radiation or other chemicals.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker