Printed on: September 18, 2013

Little reason for confidence

Idaho National Laboratory Director John Grossenbacher stated in a recent opinion article concerning the potential contamination of a local home with plutonium: "Without information about the levels detected or analysis methods used, it's impossible for us to assess the credibility of these statements."

Perhaps Grossenbacher should consider his own statement to reassess Battelle Energy Alliance's approach to transparency. BEA's delayed descriptions of the 2011 ZPPR plutonium contamination event doses omitted mention of the organ (bone) doses and omitted explanation of the methodology and uncertainty in the dose estimation.

Alpha particles from plutonium inhalation cause highly localized multiple DNA damage at the chromosomal level, much more so than exposure to gamma radiation. This damage is detected even many years after the occupational exposure, as shown in studies of Russian Mayak plutonium workers.

Plutonium inhaled into the lungs is slowly absorbed into the bloodstream and some of it is deposited in bone tissue. The preliminary dose estimates documented in the Department of Energy ZPPR accident investigation report stated that the bone organ dose could be as high as 257 rem.

BEA has strong incentives to minimize the dose estimates, both in its goals to promote positive public perception of its operations and nuclear energy and in achieving DOE award fees. There is also a history of DOE contractors being less than forthcoming about the actual doses workers have received.

Frankly, neither BEA nor the Department of Energy should be allowed to perform the dose estimates that result from accidents from their operations. BEA has emphasized that it will be "strongly defending" against the filed complaint brought by two workers exposed in the ZPPR plutonium contamination event. "Strongly defending" what? BEA's right to put cost and schedule ahead of safety with impunity? After all, BEA was cutting corners that DOE wanted cut, and DOE is paying BEA's legal fees and withholding the release of information to the best of its ability.

DOE waived away the problems of DOE-approved safety basis documents that "did not fully meet 10 CFR 830 requirements" -- which are the analysis and controls to protect workers, the public and the environment -- by deciding that it didn't matter because INL's MFC had a strong, integrated safety management program. That the DOE ZPPR accident investigation report found serious problems in all aspects of its integrated safety management program does not appear to have been much of a wake-up call for BEA or for DOE.

DOE saved money by taking a multiyear approach to improving the MFC safety basis documents without curtailing operations, and by stipulating that there should be no reporting of safety basis problems, the discovery of missing or inadequate supporting technical documents, or seismic capability deficiencies. When DOE's contractors are encouraged to sidestep the fundamentals necessary for rigorously analyzing, reporting and correcting nuclear safety problems that put workers and the public at risk, there is little reason to have confidence in the level of safety of DOE's nuclear facilities.

Thatcher is a former nuclear safety analyst at INL and a nuclear safety consultant.