Printed on: October 05, 2012

BEA is fined

By Alex Stuckey

Battelle Energy Alliance was fined $412,500 for violations of quality assurance requirements and occupational radiation protection by the Department of Energy.

The fine, which stemmed from two 2011 incidents involving worker radiation exposure, was announced Thursday. It was included in a letter from John S. Boulden III, director of the DOE's Office of Enforcement and Oversight, to lab Director John Grossenbacher.

The letter said the exposure incidents were of "high safety significance."

Grossenbacher is president of Battelle Energy Alliance, the contractor that runs the INL facilities on the DOE site west of Idaho Falls.

"We agree with the findings and we will pay the fine," Grossenbacher said.

In an email, INL spokesman Ethan Huffman said the fine will be paid from Battelle corporate funds, not taxpayer dollars.

"Our system failed and we came very close to hurting some people," Grossenbacher said. "We were lucky, but we don't operate this place on luck."

The DOE's preliminary notice of violation cited violations committed by Battelle, including failure to identify processes needing improvement, failure to effectively train personnel to perform their assigned work and failure to perform real-time monitoring.

The incidents for which Battelle was fined happened:

On Aug. 30, 2011, when an operator received an elevated radiation dose to his right hand while processing fuel samples at the Materials and Fuels Complex's Hot Fuel Examination Facility.

On Nov. 8, 2011, when 16 workers were exposed to plutonium radiation at the building that once housed the Zero Power Physics Reactor at the MFC. At least one worker inhaled the radioactive substance.

The DOE letter said both incidents involved deficient work control documents and failure to perform work consistent with approved procedures.

"Clearly the (November) event was unfortunate and doesn't meet our standards," said Phil Breidenbach, the MFC's mission support director.

In order to comply with the DOE's recommendations, the MFC has a list of nearly 80 corrective actions it must enact to improve work planning, procedures and training. About 75 percent of the corrective actions already have been put in place, Breidenbach said.

The DOE has not made public the list of corrective actions.

INL officials said none of the 16 workers exposed in the November incident would experience adverse health problems as a result of the radiation exposure. They said the workers exposed to plutonium-239 in November had received radiation that was within the DOE's annual regulatory limit.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, "internal exposure to plutonium is an extremely serious health hazard. It generally stays in the body for decades, exposing organs and tissues to radiation, and increasing the risk of cancer.

"Plutonium is also a toxic metal and may cause damage to the kidneys."

INL officials, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, would not release each worker's individual dosage rate.

In discussing the November incident, INL officials said that over the past 11 months, more than 1,400 analyses were performed on 228 different biological samples. A solubility study also was performed to determine the rate at which the inhaled radiological material is dissolving and exiting the body.

Dave Hill, deputy laboratory director for science and technology, said everyone in the U.S. is exposed to radiation.

"The damage (of radiation) is at higher levels," Hill said. "If a worker were to get cancer, you can't trace it back (to a certain event)."

Alex Stuckey can be reached at 542-6755. Comment on this story on Post Talk at talk/.