Two workers at the Idaho National Laboratory have sued the U.S. Department of Energy under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming they were wrongly denied documentation about an accident in which they were exposed to plutonium.
Brian Simmons and Ralph Stanton were among several workers packaging plutonium reactor fuel plates at the Idaho facility when they were exposed to radiation in 2011.
Earlier this year they filed a public records request asking the U.S. Department of Energy for documentation relating to the accidental exposure, including security video of the event.
In the lawsuit, the men contend the federal agency wrongly denied them access to the video because it erroneously determined it wasn’t an agency record but was instead the property of a private contractor.
The accident happened in a building that once housed a nuclear reactor. Workers had been taking plutonium fuel out of storage when they came upon radioactive materials held in two containers, each marked with a label stating the containers were damaged.
After talking to supervisors, workers removed the wrapping on one of the containers and a radioactive black powder spilled out. The workers had on lab coats and some had gloves, but none had respiratory gear or other protective clothing, according to a report released earlier this year by the Department of Energy.
Simmons and Stanton have filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration against Battelle Energy Alliance, the company contracted by the government to operate Idaho National Laboratory. In that complaint, the men contend their concerns about on-the-job safety were ignored, and an unsafe culture existed at the site before they and 16 other workers were exposed to the plutonium. They also allege retaliation after raising safety issues with administrators.
Battelle officials have denied the claims.
In the separate public records lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boise, the men said the Department of Energy obtained the security video during the course of its investigation into the accident and relied on it as a “unique opportunity to observe the entire work process taking place at the time of the accident.”
Initially, the men say, the DOE refused to turn it over under privacy grounds because the agency said that even though the two men were there when the video was taken, sharing it with them would violate the privacy of the other individuals shown in the footage.
Simmons and Stanton say in the lawsuit that the DOE later shifted its withholding rational and claimed the video wasn’t an agency record because it was generated by Battelle.
The two workers want the federal judge to force the DOE to turn over all video related to the Nov. 8, 2011, plutonium release.
Tim Jackson, a spokesman for the Department of Energy with the Idaho Operations Office, said the agency wouldn’t comment because the matter is in litigation, though he did provide the agency’s written decision on the record request.
In that decision, the DOE’s office of hearings and appeals found that Battelle Energy Alliance created the video and intended to retain control of the video, and that DOE didn’t retain a copy of the videotape. As a result, the hearing official concluded, the Department of Energy is unable to use and dispose of the record as it sees fit, and the videotape wasn’t incorporated into the agency’s files.
Additionally, the hearing official found, the agency’s contract with Battelle specifically states that the contractor owns employment-related records, including records generated during employee-related investigations. The video falls in that category, the hearing official decided.