Idaho plutonium case: At least 2 workers suffer internal exposure

The Idaho National Laboratory, a nuclear research site in eastern Idaho.
Officials at the Idaho National Laboratory said Wednesday that they had confirmed that at least two workers suffered internal exposure to plutonium and 14 others may have been exposed in an accident at the facility Tuesday afternoon.

A lung scan showed a decay product of plutonium embedded in the two workers' tissue. Other workers had confirmed contamination of their skin, which could indicate internal exposure. Four of the workers were treated with drugs to flush their systems of radioactive material.

So far, health officials at the lab said they could not determine the doses that any of the workers received.

Lab officials said they could not rule out that 16 workers had been exposed in an area known as the zero power physics reactor at the site, located 38 miles from Idaho Falls. On Tuesday, the lab said 17 workers had potentially been exposed.

Plutonium emits alpha radiation that does not penetrate the body from the outside, but inhaling it can cause long-term exposure that can increase the risk of cancer.

The Energy Department is investigating the incident. Deputy Lab Director David Hill acknowledged that some type of safety breakdown had occurred, for which the lab would have to take responsibility.

The accident occurred as workers were preparing to ship plutonium fuel to Nevada.  Lab officials said they believe stainless steel cladding around the plutonium may have failed during the last three decades and allowed the fuel to oxidize into a powder that dispersed in the room.

Officials said a worker removed a fuel plate from a container and found it wrapped in plastic. Senior lab officials authorized the worker by telephone to remove the plastic. Grains of material fell away, indicating some type of failure had occurred and the room was evacuated.

Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md., said a warning about using plastic to wrap radioactive materials was issued by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board in 1994, noting it could cause the emission of hydrogen gas from the plastic. The gas could have explained the failure of the steel cladding, Makhijani said.

But the Idaho reactor is part of the Energy Department's civilian nuclear reactor program, not the defense portion of its mission, and whether the safety board's findings were widely shared is unknown.

Hill said he considers any exposure extremely serious, but did not want to compare it to other accidents in the Energy Department lab system. Makhijani called a single accident exposing 16 people "extremely rare" and said it most likely will point to a serious lapse in safety.


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-- Ralph Vartabedian

Photo: The Idaho National Laboratory. Credit: Idaho National Laboratory

17 employees exposed to radiation at Idaho nuclear lab

The Idaho National Laboratory, a nuclear research site in eastern Idaho.
Seventeen employees at the Idaho National Laboratory were exposed to radiation Tuesday afternoon from plutonium during a routine operation at a decommissioned reactor, officials at the lab said.

The employees were taken to a medical facility at the lab for observation, though the exposure was said to be low-level.

The lab said the public was not in danger and no release of radiation had occurred outside the facility.

The sprawing federal facility conducts a wide range of research, but the facility where the incident occured conducts work on civilian nuclear energy.

Plutonium is not highly radioactive, but inhaling or ingesting the material can cause chronic exposure and has been linked to elevated risk of cancer.

The lab could not say whether the employees were exposed to a flash of radiation or to airborne material. The exposure occurred when employees opened a container that had the plutonium inside. Sara Prentice, a spokeswoman, said it was not known what the employees were doing inside the reactor building, but she described it as a routine operation.

The incident is being managed by laboratory leaders and officials from the Energy Department's Idaho office, she said.


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Photo: An undated photograph of the Idaho National Laboratory. Credit: Idaho National Laboratory handout/Reuters

Cleveland Slavs mourn loss of Catholic churches


This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

A few dozen stalwart Polish Americans gather each Sunday next to a chain-link fence on the east side of Cleveland, holding a vigil at their shuttered St. Casimir Catholic Church and hoping that one day authorities in Rome will reopen the church.

It was ordered closed by Bishop Richard Lennon in 2009, part of a massive urban retrenchment of the Cleveland Diocese, in which more than 50 churches in the region were shuttered. Most of the churches were located in the decaying core of the city.  

The St. Casimir parishioners vow they will not concede defeat, showing up at the church, Polish flags in hand. Sunday will mark the second anniversary of their crusade.

The Hungarians, Slovaks, Slovenes, Poles, Czechs and other Slavic groups were among the hardest hit in the closures, losing churches that served waves of immigrants who flooded into Cleveland over the last century and became part of the city's industrial work force.

More than a dozen church congregations have appealed Lennon's decision to authorities in Rome, who have yet to decide whether to uphold it or reopen the churches.

Robert Tayek, spokesman for the diocese, said the protesters are actually a very small group.

"They have their intent and they want to follow it through," Tayek said. "Most of the people have gotten through it.  The healing process is under way and things have settled down."

Tayek said the appeals process is a slow one and that a similar appeal in Boston took about five years to resolve.

John Juhasz spends every Sunday at a vigil outside St. Emeric, once a center of the Hungarian American community in Cleveland.

"There is no healing at all," Juhasz said. "Mr. Tayek is engaging in wishful thinking."

Before it was closed last year, services at St. Emeric were held in Hungarian. The parish had recruited their priest from Hungary. A Hungarian Boy Scout troop and school still operate in buildings separate from the church.

Joe Feckinan, who spends nearly every Sunday at St. Casimir, said Lennon deeply misunderstood the depth of emotions that were involved among Eastern Europeans, whose families fled more than a century of war and upheaval in Europe and looked at their churches as part of their ethnic identity.

"My relatives fought from the sewers of Warsaw," Feckinan said, referring to the uprising against Nazis during World War II. Feckinan's wife, Malgosia, fled Poland with her family during the Cold War.

"I can't let this fight go," Feckinan said. "We are not giving up."

Stanislav Zadnik, whose Slovene parish was shut down, said the diocese has been disrespectful toward parishioners when it closes churches. Several months ago, Zadnik got into a battle of words with Tayek over a World War II memorial plaque that was found among the debris of a demolished church. When Zadnik recovered it, Tayek alleged Zadnik had taken it "under false pretenses."

"Mr. Tayek slandered me," Zadnik said.

When the Cleveland Plain Dealer gave an account of the matter, the diocese said the paper's story was inaccurate and misleading. The author, Michael O'Malley, said the paper had not issued a correction and that it stood by the accuracy of the story.

"Bishop Lennon is ruthless," Zadnik said. "The people are disgusted."

-- Ralph Vartabedian


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Photo: A fence surrounds St. Casimir Catholic Church after it was closed by the Cleveland Diocese two years ago. Credit: Tom Sullens.

[For the Record: 11:41 a.m., Nov. 5: An earlier version of this post gave the photo credit as John Sullens.]


Legal challenge to licensing of U.S. nuclear plants

Photo: San Onofre nuclear plant near San Clemente. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times A group of 25 anti-nuclear organizations will file legal challenges today that aim to slam the brakes on licensing actions at the nation's commercial nuclear plants, based on preliminary reviews of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima plant this year.

The legal challenges contend that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can't legally issue or renew reactor licenses until it has strengthened rules to protect the public from an accident or conducted detailed reviews of the environmental impacts of not doing so.

The groups include Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, National Parks Conservation Assn. and two Sierra Club chapters, including others.

The staff of the NRC conducted a short-term assessment of the Fukushima meltdown and issued a dozen recommendations to strengthen the safety of U.S. nuclear plants. In a 96-page report issued last month, the NRC staff called for strengthening regulatory programs, improving emergency preparedness and upgrading seismic safety. The agency is now conducting a longer-term assessment of the Fukushima accident.

The nuclear groups said their legal challenges would assert that the NRC review had produced new information that raised health and safety concerns that should slow down the licensing process. The affected plants are spread across the U.S. and include the Diablo Canyon plant in California.


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Photo: San Onofre nuclear plant near San Clemente. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

Mystery lovers, rejoice: D.B. Cooper legend lives on

The_one_that_got_away The FBI says DNA testing has failed to conclusively link a potential new suspect to the D.B. Cooper hijacking case. But then again, test results haven't exactly ruled out a link, either.

And that's good news for mystery lovers: It might have been a little disappointing if the tests had shut the lid on one of the most tantalizing cases in U.S. law enforcement. On Twitter, Brad Meltzer, author and host of History Channel's mystery-cracking "Decoded," remarked on the news: "D.B. Cooper just keeps getting better, right?"

To this day, the case of D.B. Cooper remains the FBI's only unsolved hijacking case. And for now, Cooper continues to be the one that got away.

Photos: D.B. Cooper and the skyjacking mystery

The legend dates back to 1971, when Cooper settled into his seat aboard a Boeing 747, ordered a bourbon and water and lit a cigarette. (Those were the good 'ol days, weren't they?) Then, he called over a flight attendant and handed her a note, printed in all capitals: "I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked." But the drama was just beginning. With his $200,000 in ransom, he dramatically parachuted out the back of the plane and vanished without a trace in the Pacific Northwest forest.

Since then, devising scenarios of Cooper's escape has been an intriguing parlor game and the inspiration for Fox's hit series "Prison Break." Could Cooper have survived his escape, which took place in a cold storm? Was he living it up on a beach someplace? And, come to think of it, how long could someone live on $200,000, anyway?

Continue reading »


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

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