At the Center for Public Integrity, a five-part investigative series on safety at the nation’s nuclear facilities finds that workers can and do suffer serious injuries, yet the Department of Energy typically imposes only minimal fines for safety incidents and companies get to keep a majority of their profits, which does little to improve working conditions. Reporters estimated that the number of safety incidents has tripled since 2013.
For example, in 2009, the chair of a safety committee at Idaho National Laboratory told high-ranking managers that damaged plutonium plates could put workers at serious risk. However, managers ignored his warnings. Then an incident occurred in which 16 workers inhaled plutonium dust particles.
In Part 5 of the series, Patrick Malone and Peter Cary write:
Ted Lewis knew the plutonium plates at the government lab where he worked could leak potentially lethal radioactive dust.
He had seen it occur in the 1970s, when he was helping load some of those plates into a nuclear reactor at the lab near Idaho Falls, Idaho. A steel jacket enclosing one of the plates somehow cracked, spilling plutonium oxide particles into the air. But Lewis and his colleagues were lucky — they were wearing respirators and given cleansing showers, so their lives weren’t endangered.
Three decades later, Lewis, an electrical engineer who had become chairman of the lab’s safety committee, had a bad feeling this could happen again, with a worse outcome. And he turned out to be right.
He tried to head it off. In 2009, Lewis wrote a pointed warning memo — he called it a White Paper — and gave it to the official in charge of all nuclear operations at the Idaho National Laboratory, which is run by a consortium of private companies and universities under contract to the Energy Department.
The memo said the chance of encountering a plutonium plate that disintegrated, as Lewis had previously witnessed, was “greater than facility and senior management realizes,” according to a copy. Although Lewis said that a workplace manual published by the contractor — Battelle Energy Alliance, LLC (BEA) — called the risk of an accidental spill of such radioactive dust “negligible,” he wanted his superiors to expect it and prepare for it.
He said in a sworn court deposition in January 2016 that he shared his concerns with at least 19 others at the laboratory, which holds one of the world’s largest stockpiles of plutonium, the explosive at the heart of modern nuclear weapons. But they didn’t respond, he said, and some of the precautions he urged — checking the plates more carefully before they were unwrapped and repackaged for shipment and setting up a decontamination shower — were ignored.
Read the full (and amazing) investigative series at the Center for Public Integrity.
In other news:
USA Today: Brett Murphy reports on a year-long investigation into port trucking companies in Southern California, finding that such companies often treat their workers like little more than indentured servants, forcing drivers to take on huge debt to finance their own trucks and then using that debt against them to “trap drivers in jobs that left them destitute.” When drivers quit, the companies seize their trucks, keeping all the money the workers had paid toward ownership. Drivers also reported being physically barred from going home, being forced to work against their will, and being forced to break safety laws that limit the hours they drive each day. The investigative piece is based on accounts from more than 300 drivers, hundreds of hours of sworn testimony and contracts never seen by the public. Murphy writes: “Retailers could refuse to allow companies with labor violations to truck their goods. Instead they’ve let shipping and logistics contractors hire the lowest bidder, while lobbying on behalf of trucking companies in Sacramento and Washington D.C. Walmart, Target and dozens of other Fortune 500 companies have paid lobbyists up to $12.6 million to fight bills that would have held companies liable or given drivers a minimum wage and other protections that most U.S. workers already enjoy.”
Huffington Post: Jesselyn Cook reports that seven journalists have been murdered in Mexico this year, which means Mexico is now among the most dangerous places to be a reporter. The most recent victim was Salvador Adame, a veteran TV reporter who covered regional news and politics. Months before Adame’s death, reporter Miroslava Breach Velducea, a reporter for La Jornada, was shot eight times outside her home in front of her children. Unfortunately, the killing of journalists in Mexico often goes unpunished. Cook writes: ‘“Fear and self-censorship by journalists remains very, very strong,’ Emmanuel Colombié, Latin America director for Reporters Without Borders (or Reporters sans frontières), told HuffPost. Some reporters have fled Mexico and others have quit the industry as a result of targeted threats and violence against members of the Mexican press, he noted. In the border state of Tamaulipas, for example, ‘there are very few journalists remaining,’ Colombié said.”
High Plains Public Radio: Grant Gerlock reports that a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report finds that the safety data collected by federal officials doesn’t accurately reflect all the dangers that meat and poultry workers face on the job. According to the GAO report, 151 meat and poultry workers died from on-the-job injuries between 2004 and 2013, which means such workers experience a higher injury rate than their peers in the rest of the manufacturing industry. However, the GAO also found that such injuries are under-reported. For example, injuries among sanitary workers who clean meat plant machinery aren’t always counted as official meat and poultry workers. In addition, some injured workers are simply encouraged to return to work without seeing a doctor. Gerlock writes: “Worker advocates say they have long been suspicious of reported injury rates from meat companies. For instance, a recent study at a Maryland poultry plant by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found one-third of workers had injuries that meet the definition of carpal tunnel, but only a handful of injuries had been reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”
American Prospect: David Bacon reports that after four years of strikes and boycotts, the first new U.S. farmworker union in 25 years has officially launched: Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) in Washington state. The union’s origins go back to 2013, when workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms grew angry about low piece rates and poor conditions in the labor camps. Workers then discovered that employers had begun recruiting workers via the H2A visa program and paying them nearly $3 more an hour than local workers, even though the visa program is supposed to be for employers unable to find workers locally. Eventually, the employers attempted to fire the entire workforce and replace them with H2A workers. The plan backfired after workers exposed the scheme, paving the way for a union. Bacon reports: “’We are part of a movement of indigenous people,’ says Felimon Pineda, FUJ vice president. An immigrant from Jicaral Cocoyan de las Flores in Oaxaca, he says organizing the union is part of a fight against the discrimination indigenous people face in both Mexico and the United States: ‘Sometimes people see us as being very low. They think we have no rights. They're wrong. The right to be human is the same.’”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.