Simmons believed radiation exposure at Idaho laboratory was inevitable

The Idaho National Laboratory sits about 35 miles west of Idaho Falls. Idaho National Laboratory/Flickr

EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Simmons was shot and killed in August by Maricopa Police during a noise complaint that escalated into a shootout. Simmons, who had 21 interactions with the Maricopa Police Department in the last eight months of his life, had mental health issues that likely stemmed from radiation when he worked at Idaho National Laboratory.

Brian Simmons always had a suspicion the days were numbered until he would become the victim of a radiation exposure while working at Idaho National Laboratory, 35 miles west of Idaho Falls.

Looking back on Nov. 8, 2011, and the plutonium contamination in the Zero Power Physics Reactor Facility at Idaho National Laboratory, Simmons was right.

Simmons’ father, Hal, recalled a discussion with his son afterward.

“Brian told me, ‘Dad, it’s not the first (event), it’s just the worst,’” Hal said.

Ralph Stanton, a friend and co-worker of Simmons, said it was normal operating procedure for Nuclear Facility Operators, like the two of them, to handle weapons-grade plutonium at the facility in street clothes, sneakers and a lab coat.

On the day of Simmons’ and Stanton’s exposure, Stanton said he unwrapped plastic and duct tape covering a plutonium research-reactor fuel plate. Black powder trickled out, exposing Stanton, Simmons and 14 other employees.

Stanton took one look at the obviously compromised package and knew the situation was grim. He said he took his concerns to management at Battelle Energy Alliance, the Department of Energy’s main contractor for the lab, who told him to either open the package or go home without a job.

After their exposure, meters measuring radioactivity registered dangerously high on Simmons and Stanton. Stanton said INL did not have mitigation procedures in place at the site of the exposure.

“Radiological Control Technicians from other facilities started arriving at our facility to help evacuate us to the medical facility,” Stanton said. “Some of the first responders showed up in full anti-contamination clothing with full respiratory protection, while others showed up with no protection at all. It was very disorganized.”

Other precautions were nonexistent, according to Stanton.

“Decontamination showers were historically available in the ZPPR (Zero Power Physics Reactor) Facility but had been removed to cut costs,” Stanton said. “Due to the ZPPR facility showers having been removed, the only thing that they could do for us was take our clothes and put us in modesty clothing (surgical scrubs).”

The only treatment the two men received that day, Stanton said, was chelation, which attaches to metals and minerals in the bloodstream. It can be eliminated through urination. Those treatments typically are done on a weekly basis. Stanton said he and Simmons received that treatment only once. Such treatments, however, are worthless when radiation is inhaled, as was the case with Simmons and Stanton.

The exposure made national news that day. Leaders at INL promised no radiation had escaped from the facility. Stanton and Simmons went home to their families that night without even the precaution of a shower, still covered in radioactive isotopes.

For the next six months, the two were banished to the basement of the laboratory by management to keep from exposing other employees to radiation.

According to Stanton, one day, management at the site suddenly decided to put the two of them back to work. Any future radioactive readings on the two would be attributed to other incidents.

Battelle Energy Alliance pegged the radiation dose Stanton and Simmons received at just 2 percent of the yearly limit for nuclear workers.

Stanton knew immediately the readings were wrong. He and Simmons were constantly sick, suffering from fits of bloody diarrhea and vomiting. On top of all else, according to Stanton, they were being denied access to their medical records from the event by BEA.

Simmons and Stanton both pressed for copies of the records from their accident, but Stanton said Battelle stonewalled them. Later, a federal report of the incident indicated  Stanton’s and Simmons’ exposure from that event was likely 5 times higher than their yearly exposure limit, far, far greater than BEA claimed. A link to that report is at the end of this story.

One day, Stanton said he and Simmons were talking at Stanton’s house and an unidentified person called and asked to meet that night in the Albertsons parking lot.

The stranger delivered — and in a big way — supplying Stanton and Simmons with documentation showing INL’s senior management was warned in 2009 and five months prior to their accident that damaged plutonium fuel plates stored at the plant could lead to the exact kind of event they experienced.

Stanton said he demanded answers from BEA. They refused. He said he and Simmons became victims of a campaign of harassment.

“They were either going to make our lives so difficult that we quit, or they were going to find some kind of a technicality to fire us on,” Stanton said.

Stanton said BEA re-assigned Simmons and him to different departments and forbade them from talking to each other while at the facility.

Stanton, a veteran of the Iraq War, held a high-level security clearance, perhaps one of the highest at the facility. He was accused of workplace violence and harassment because a teddy bear was placed in someone’s cubicle, he said, adding he was written up for negative body language and accused of putting his feet up on his desk.

Stanton was fired two days before Christmas in 2013.

In separate lawsuits, Simmons and Stanton settled out of court with BEA. Terms of those settlements were not disclosed.

The Department of Energy’s report on the Plutonium Contamination in the Zero Power Physics Reactor Facility at the Idaho National Laboratory on Nov. 8, 2011 can be found here: INL_AI_Report_11-08-2011

For additional stories on Brian Simmons, click the following links: 

‘We were trying to get him some help’ – InMaricopa
Unpacking the Brian Simmons story – InMaricopa
Simmons’ family speaks out on death – InMaricopa
Maricopa police officers in Simmons shooting say their hand was forced – InMaricopa
Neighbor: Brian Simmons’ mental state had been alarming for some time – InMaricopa
BRIAN SIMMONS: A look at Idaho National Laboratory – InMaricopa
BRIAN SIMMONS: Understanding HIPAA – InMaricopa
BRIAN SIMMONS: A look at Title 36 – InMaricopa
BRIAN SIMMONS: Tips to managing mental-health care – InMaricopa