The U.S. Department of Energy is warning Battelle Energy Alliance it faces a $500,000 reduction in the fee it receives to manage the Idaho National Laboratory after 16 employees were exposed to radiation.
The Nov. 8 exposure and several other incidents over the past year were “indicative of recurring deficiencies” in several areas of INL operations, Rick Provencher, manager of the DOE’s office in Idaho Falls, wrote to lab director John Grossenbacher.
“A common theme has been the failure to make conservative decisions in the field when unexpected conditions are encountered,” Provencher wrote on Jan. 31.
The Post Register reports Battelle can earn the $500,000 back by improving its operations at the nuclear research lab before the end of the fiscal year.
Provencher gave Battelle a “no grade” evaluation in the area of “operations performance in support programs,” one measure of the company’s performance.
At the end of each fiscal year, the DOE assesses Battelle’s effectiveness in hundreds of categories, with the total scores determining the company’s overall grade for the year. The grade determines the fee Battelle receives for managing the lab. Battelle can earn up to $18.7 million a year.
Since it won the INL contract in 2005, Battelle never has graded below 91 percent on the DOE’s scale, meaning it met the agency’s expectations.
Battelle has a chance to improve its “operations performance in support programs” grade by the end of September.
“What they’ve done is given us a shot across the bow,” Deputy INL Director Juan Alvarez told the Post Register. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, if you want this carrot back, you’d better work your buns off.'”
The DOE could fine Battelle for the radiation exposure, but the agency has not announced a punitive action, Alvarez said.
Last month, the DOE said the accident could have been prevented. INL officials said at the time that they did not expect the employees to suffer health effects.
On Feb. 9, Battelle announced it needed to cut up to 185 jobs to reduce costs and said most of the cuts would come from administrative support positions, rather than lab research jobs. INL spokesman Ethan Huffman said the layoffs were not connected in any way with the potential DOE fee reduction. The layoff decision was based on the federal budget that covers salaries, not the DOE incentive payments the company receives for operating the laboratory, he said.