A December guest opinion from Tami Thatcher, a former nuclear safety analyst at the Idaho National Laboratory and a nuclear safety consultant.
The headline that “Radiation, chemicals likely killed 396 INL workers” by Rocky Barker at the Idaho Statesman last December understates the historical occupational health issues at the Idaho National Laboratory. As of last November, 5,397 INL workers had applied for radiation or chemical illness compensation under the Energy Employee compensation act. Only 636 radiation claims and 926 chemical claims have so far been approved.
There are now two petitions for radiation exposure cohorts being investigated by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health: one for INL and one for ANL-W. So far, one cohort for the Chem Plant from 1963 to 1974 has been recommended largely because of inadequate plutonium contamination monitoring.
The INL including ANL-W has conducted a tremendous variety of nuclear operations over the years at various facilities. While radiation monitoring practices and nuclear operations have changed over the years, here’s one thing that hasn’t changed: the deliberate understatement and omitting of important facts by the Department of Energy concerning contamination and exposures at these facilities.
Congressional testimony when the Energy worker act was created documented how the DOE deliberately withheld information it considered might erode public confidence, increase its liability, or prompt workers to demand hazard pay.
As I review recent reports by the DOE which still deceptively minimize historical radiological releases to southeast Idaho, it is clear that not much has changed. A DOE report published in 2014 depicts public offsite radiation doses all being below 10 mrem/yr, yet its cited source shows annual doses three times that amount. And various releases have been found by NIOSH to have been underestimated. Add to these low-balled INL releases the Department of Energy weapons testing releases that continued from underground testing after the above-ground weapons test ban in 1963.
I stumbled across serious errors in annual reporting of radionuclide emissions for 2013 at the INL that no one at DOE, INL or IDEQ had noticed, it is clear that the illusion of environmental monitoring is far more important that the actual monitoring, evaluation of results or looking for ways to reduce emissions. Emissions are often estimated without verification and then downplayed. The State of Idaho should care about the accurate current and historical reporting of contamination of air and water.
While other federal agencies such as the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission post public comment as received whether or not the proposed action is pursued. The DOE has yet to post public comment regarding the Two Proposed Shipments to INL citing the reason that it has altered its original plan. DOE has long eluded having to post or respond to solicited public comment this way.
A recent large epidemiology study combining France, the UK and the US has provided more evidence that it is cumulative dose that matters and doses below radiation protection standards yield increased cancer risk. You can count of the Department of Energy to make only muffled responses and it is unlikely that radiation worker training will discuss these results. The DOE has yet to reconcile radiation health findings from 2006 that found children were 7 times more vulnerable to radiation exposure, and women twice as vulnerable as men or the INL worker epidemiology showing elevated risk of brain tumors and blood cancers for INL workers, whether or not the workers were radiation workers.
NIOSH conducts radiation dose reconstruction with available dose reports. And it has yet to come to grips with serious americium-241 shallow perched water contamination at the ATR complex. The secrecy caused an absence of record keeping of the quantities of americium and other long-lived radionuclides flushed down the drains to open-air pecolation ponds.
And the US Geological survey which wrote a report specifically about shallow and deep perched water failed to monitor either americium or gross alpha levels. Even tiny community wells must monitor gross alpha levels. The USGS gave as an excuse that they do not read CERCLA reports that reported the americium levels at 100 times the maximum contaminant levels. The DOE has for years avoided mentioning long-lived radionuclide contamination at INL because it knows that the truth could erode public confidence.
NIOSH has continually been misled by the DOE about the adequacy of radiation controls at INL. NIOSH interviews are conducted but current workers cannot discuss problems without risk of retribution. Former workers need to step up and assist NIOSH in understanding past and current issues at INL that may have led to inadequate monitoring of radiation exposure as NIOSH investigates the petitions.