In his job as a nuclear facility operator in 2011, Ralph Stanton handled weapons-grade plutonium in street clothes, sneakers and a lab coat.
Thirty-five years ago, nuclear workers who did the same job wore respirators to protect them from contaminating themselves with alpha radiation-emitting americium and plutonium, which can be deadly when inhaled.
The federal government says strict safety standards and rigorous monitoring make nuclear workers’ jobs much safer now than they were during the Cold War.
Stanton knew immediately: Radioactive plutonium oxide was airborne.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
But don’t tell that to Stanton, who was unwrapping plastic and duct tape covering a plutonium research reactor fuel plate under a fume hood on Nov. 8, 2011, when black powder suddenly trickled out.
Stanton knew immediately: Radioactive plutonium oxide was airborne.
“When you see powder,” Stanton recalled later, “you’re toast.”
Stanton and 15 other workers were exposed that day at the Idaho National Laboratory, an 890-square-mile Department of Energy research and storage site 27 miles west of Idaho Falls.
They are among more than 186,000 nuclear workers across the country who have been exposed to recordable levels of radiation on the job since 2001, according to an analysis of Department of Energy data by McClatchy.
Eight of those workers received doses that exceeded the Department of Energy’s administrative threshold for triggering mandatory investigations. Four received doses that exceeded the DOE’s regulatory limit.
Battelle Energy Alliance, the Department of Energy’s main contractor for the lab, pegged the radiation dose Stanton had received at 2 percent of the limit for nuclear workers.
But after poring over medical documents, the DOE investigation and other records, Stanton believes he has proof that the finding drastically underestimates his level of exposure.
He worries that it’s just a matter of time until the plutonium and americium he ingested give him cancer.
Stanton fears that when that day comes, he won’t be able to prove his eligibility for compensation from a federal fund set up in 2001 for the nation’s nuclear workers for illnesses likely caused by exposure to radiation and other toxins on the job.
It’s a fear shared by many workers involved in today’s nuclear research, weapons production and cleanup efforts across the country: that inadequate sampling and secrecy surrounding accidents could leave them without the proof they will one day need.
“What happens in 15 years when I get bone cancer, or something else?” said Stanton, 50. “I don’t get any help. I don’t get workmen’s comp. I don’t get nothing.”
Leaks and vapors
During the early days of the Manhattan Project and later during the frantic arms race of the Cold War, officials often chalked up contamination of nuclear workers as necessary sacrifices for national security.
More than 186,000 nuclear weapons workers across the country have been exposed to recordable levels of radiation on the job since 2001.
Since then, safety standards have tightened dramatically. And yet accidents persist.
Among the accidents that exposed workers to radiation and toxic chemicals in recent years:
▪ On June 14, 2010, a worker at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina was sorting radioactive waste when a wire pierced his right hand. Based on the estimated dose, the site’s contractor, Savannah River Nuclear Services, predicted no effect on the length or quality of the employee’s life.
A followup investigation by the Department of Energy identified four violations of radiation protection and nuclear safety regulations.
▪ From March 2014 through September 2015, at least 71 workers at the Hanford Site in Washington state received medical exams after being in areas where vapors from chemical waste were suspected. Many smelled odors or experienced symptoms such as headaches, nausea, coughing, nosebleeds and dizziness.
In September, the state of Washington filed a lawsuit over the vapors, seeking better protection for workers from the federal government.
‘Eyes on, hands off’
Investigations into today’s accidents often find that contractors have rushed work or cut corners – not to end a world war or to outmaneuver the Russians, but to save money or earn bonuses.
Complacency also contributes to what the Government Accountability Office has described as “persistent safety problems, stemming largely from long-standing management weaknesses.”
A 2013 GAO report slammed the contractors who run the Department of Energy’s nuclear facilities for “lax attitudes toward safety procedures.”
The Department of Energy relies more heavily on contractors than any other civilian federal agency. Ninety percent of the DOE’s budget is spent on contracts and large capital asset projects, according to the GAO. But the Energy Department has a track record of inadequate management of its contracts, which have been listed by the GAO as an area at high risk for fraud, waste and mismanagement since 1990.
The DOE says its overall safety record is very good. “However, given the complexity and the nature of the work being performed across the department, events will occur,” Bartlett Jackson, the department’s spokesman, said in a statement. He said the agency works continually to improve the safety performance of all its contractors and workers.
Lack of trust
Government officials and the contractors that run the nuclear facilities often tell workers involved in recent accidents that their exposures won’t harm them.
But many, like Stanton, worry that their doses aren’t being measured accurately and that the health risks they face are downplayed by the contractors, who could face fines or be forced to halt work for costly safety reviews.
From a review of contractor misconduct cases, it’s clear that falsification of radiation records does sometimes happen.
Earlier this year, for example, the Department of Energy imposed a $243,750 fine on the contractor in charge of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio, for the “willful falsification” of radiation protection records in April 2013.
When Stanton pressed for copies of records from his own accident, he says Battelle stonewalled him.
Weeks went by. He was still waiting in January 2012 when the Energy Department’s report on the accident came out. Based on preliminary information, the report predicted that workers’ intake of radiation could be as high as five times the annual limit.
Perhaps most infuriating of all, Stanton discovered that the lab’s senior management had been warned in a memo in 2009, and again five months before the accident, that damaged plutonium fuel plates stored at the reactor test facility where he worked could cause the kind of exposure that ended up happening to him and his colleagues.
In the memo, the chairman of an independent safety review committee said he’d been involved in a similar accident decades before, but he and his colleagues had been wearing respirators. He recommended safety procedures that management failed to implement.
Finally, 10 months after the accident, lab officials called Stanton in and told him his total dose for 2011 was just a fraction of the radiation the federal government allows nuclear workers to absorb in a year.
But Stanton says his electronic dosimeter had registered a higher annual total when he’d logged into a computer to start work the day of the accident. He didn’t understand how the total could have gone down after being exposed – unless someone had falsified the records.
The more Stanton demanded answers, the more trouble he got into at work. He began to be written up for all kinds of things, including workplace violence, which he said was based on a comment someone next to him said, body language and putting his feet on his desk.
He was fired two days before Christmas in 2013.
Stanton filed a lawsuit against Battelle for whistleblower retaliation. Two other workers also sued, seeking to determine their true doses from the accident.
Even four years after his accident, Stanton still talks in a voice taut with anger that such disregard for safety could exist, long after the Cold War ended. And after so many of his fellow nuclear workers have become sick and died.
“I just remember the betrayal of this,” he said, “that these people – these managers – could actually know about a deadly hazard and not tell us.”
The Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute, a nonprofit media center based in New York City, helped support this project.