Uranium is one of the heaviest metals on earth. This property, among others, is what makes it useful for being processed into plutonium, the fuel needed for nuclear bombs. And while this precious element has for generations been a kind of coin of the realm during America’s decades of nuclear stockpiling, federal scientists have found a new use for uranium. But, as some government workers will attest, this new usefulness is not without its costs.
Someone discovered that depleted uranium, or DU—what’s left after the tiny fraction of the metal that can be processed into plutonium is extracted—could be processed into a highly effective armor for tanks, and into an especially deadly jacket for bullets. DU-treated military wares are in high demand due to the density of uranium. Tanks armored with DU are more difficult to pierce with conventional ammunition, and when the process is applied to the manufacture of ammunition, the resulting shells will pierce just about anything else. By the time the Gulf War began a decade ago, the military was experimenting widely with this technology, so much so that the side effects of exposure to DU may be responsible for some of the ailments affecting veterans of that conflict.
But before anyone worried about that, the simplicity of how to dispose of this formerly useless by-product of plutonium manufacturing must have seemed to military engineers a long overdue epiphany, ironically inspired by a mantra of the people generally opposed to the military: reduce, reuse, recycle. To initiate the process turning old uranium into new armor and ammunition, it was discovered, all you have to do is burn it.
That was Clint Jensen’s job at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Lab (INEEL) near Idaho Falls, starting in late 1997. As a Vietnam veteran, a resident of Idaho Falls and employee of the lab for 21 years, Jensen is familiar with some of the nay-sayer’s arguments about his job, particularly those from a group calling itself Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, based in Jackson, Wyo. In the instance of that particular group, known as KYNF, an elitist label has proved convenient: A movement funded by doctors, lawyers, actors and trust-funders manipulating public sentiment with doomsday prophesies about toxic clouds engulfing Yellowstone National Park was, at best, a dubious cause. At worst, it was simply a case of a wealthy few looking out for themselves at the expense of the working man in Idaho Falls. Many employees of INEEL see it this way, despite evidence that what’s happening at Jensen’s lab should warrant a very public concern. But after what Jensen himself has been through, he now finds himself siding with the very group that his co-workers see as a threat to their livelihood.
“It’s always been the same with anyone who opposed anything that INEEL was doing,” says Jensen, about Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free. “They’re portrayed as communists, elitists, freaks, idiots, and dismissed as un-American. But to me, the people there have been great. They got me a lawyer, and were one of the few who listened at all to what I was trying to say.”
How Jensen came to be aligned with these unlikely allies and involved in a major fight with INEEL involves, ironically enough, a grievance that the nuclear watchdog group itself often makes: profiteering at the expense of working people. The expense, in this case, is much more than economic: Two men who worked at the incinerator facility with Jensen died of cancer, another two have been placed on disability, and Jensen himself has had his gall bladder removed, as well as a tumor from his large intestine. In addition, he frequently suffers from blackouts, dizziness, loss of appetite, headaches, pain in his limbs, nausea, and prostate trouble. To Jensen, his physicians and his supporters in Jackson, the cause of these symptoms couldn’t be more obvious. But the Department of Energy has not yet acknowledged the possibility that Clint Jensen’s illness is the result of more than two decades of handling radioactive material at its Idaho lab.
It’s an acknowledgement that Jensen says he has suffered greatly to obtain. When he first brought his health complaints to the attention of his bosses, he claims he was ignored; he was then harassed, he says, for filing a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor. When he missed work for what his personal doctor deemed legitimate reasons, his superiors questioned his mental stability and revoked personal leave hours Jensen had accumulated.
Today, his health problems continue, as does the fight with his employer, whom Jensen’s lawyer said in a letter to the DOE has established a pattern of “apparent gross negligence.” For his own sake, Jensen is pursuing an independent health analysis, a move the DOE has agreed to at their own expense. A physician has been designated, and Jensen may know in a few months what the cause of his sickness is. In the meantime, Jensen will have to continue working at INEEL to retain health benefits, a humiliation familiar to thousands of workers unhappy with their jobs and bosses. Still, Jensen remains resolute in a conflict that is now bigger than just one man. According to his claim, corporations contracted with INEEL to safely dispose of toxic waste and protect workers have instead ignored workers’ concerns over hazardous practices, obfuscated records of possible contamination, and effectively gagged employees from discussing problems at the lab.
“They’ve tried to ruin me, tried every dirty trick in the book,” says Jensen. “I could have given away all their secrets, but I’ve honored the security clearance they’ve given me. I value my honor, and I love my family and my freedom. I know in my heart that I wouldn’t have any of these problems if I hadn’t done the work I did for them there.”
A Long List of Complaints
Relaxed and surrounded by his four children on a Saturday evening, Jensen retires to a room away from the cacophony of his household in Firth, Idaho, to speak about his experiences at INEEL. “You know the funny thing was, in August of ’97, when I started working, I felt like I was fit enough to take on the world,” he recalls. “I had just come off knee surgery, and the doctor told me even though I am a big man that I ought to be walking as far as I could every day. I was up to five miles a day before I started getting sick.
“It has been a long, lonely road,” he goes on. “I’ve been isolated by co-workers. I think the people still alive that worked at the incinerator must be scared. … I’d like to see someone other than the DOE responsible for safety inspections and the health of workers. Right now, they’ve made other people sick, and no one is holding them accountable for it.”
The basis for Jensen’s conviction can be gleaned from the highlights of his complaint, filed by his attorney Tom Carpenter.
Jensen and his co-workers burned DU in a part of the INEEL facility known as the Specific Manufacturing Capability shop. There, Jensen’s duties included burning DU in the form of chips, sludge, and powder, as well as cleaning up and mopping around the incinerator. This device was “home made” rather than purchased, documents state, consisting of two lab ovens placed side-by-side enclosed in Plexiglas and stainless steel. But the Plexiglas surrounding the oven was not airtight. One of the engineers who designed and tested the oven died of cancer in his early 50s.
Among other charges listed in the complaint:
Jensen was never briefed about the hazardous materials, DU and others, he was working with, nor was he given required documents or training at the appropriate time.
Jensen was asked by superiors throughout 1997 and 1998 to turn off smoke detectors and long-term radiation monitors that would have tripped alarms due to smoke generated from burning DU.
Jensen arrived at work one night to find that buckets of DU-contaminated water had leaked around the oven, creating a puddle in which he was required to work. Jensen was directed to clean up the spill after a co-worker asked a supervisor what is was he was standing in. Jensen was given a voucher for a new pair of work boots to replace his contaminated ones. The incident was never documented or reported in any released INEEL papers.
After Jensen began feeling ill in late 1998, he and other workers began raising complaints about working conditions and hazards. Another worker fell ill with similar symptoms, but both management and company doctors dismissed workers’ concerns.
Jensen missed five weeks of work in late 1998 due to continuing health problems. These difficulties have continued to the present.
In early 1999, Jensen was referred to a series of doctors contracted by the Department of Energy, who contradicted Jensen’s own physicians by declaring him free to return to work. After Jensen continued to voice concerns over work conditions, his security clearance was increased in March 1999, though his job didn’t change, a move Jensen’s attorney construes as effectively gagging Jensen by making it less possible for him to talk specifically about his health problems outside of work.
In April 1999, another DOE-contracted doctor examined Jensen, told him that his own doctors were wrong, and that Jensen should return to work. Jensen’s supervisor, upon hearing of the company doctor’s diagnosis, revoked 270 hours of Jensen’s personal leave, time that has not been restored to Jensen’s account as of this writing. During this same time, the DOE seems to have to run interference on Jensen’s attempts to seek outside medical attention. A DOE doctor refused to release Jensen’s medical records, sensitive correspondence between him and his physicians was mysteriously delayed, and on one occasion, a doctor’s appointment was canceled without Jensen’s knowledge.
Later Jensen was escorted by his supervisor to a counselor for a psychological evaluation, a move his lawyer characterizes as “an attempt to stigmatize” his client.
Finally, on Jan. 27, 2000, Jensen suffered a seizure at work. He was unconscious for two to three minutes. He was taken to the hospital and kept there for several days. But doctors were unable the diagnose the cause of any of Jensen’s ailments or his collapse.
Since filing the complaint, the incinerator has been shut down. New regulations have been written that mandate the use of a respirator when working near the incinerator; soon after the incinerator was activated in 1997, another worker in Jensen’s shop died of sinus cancer at the age of 33. Many Charges, Few Responses
Jensen’s complaint with the Department of Labor prompted a full investigation of the incinerator facility by the Department of Energy. The company contracted with INEEL, Bechtel of Idaho, had months to clean up before the investigation, but even with the lag time, DOE inspectors found dust piles of uranium oxide, a known contaminant, on the floor of the incinerator facility.
Though the DOE inspection report strongly criticized Bechtel for the conditions found in the Specific Manufacturing Capability shop, the report also concluded that “there are systems and procedures in place to protect workers from radiological and chemical hazards.”
While such systems may have been on the books, Carpenter contends, no one was putting them to use. What’s more, he adds, Bechtel dispensed with such protections when they didn’t fit the company’s needs.
“They shut off smoke alarms so the fire department wouldn’t respond to the smoke they were generating,” he says. His organization’s report on INEEL characterizes the situation as a “half-baked cover up” and points out that no one from the DOE ever observed the incinerator while it was up and running—since the operation had been suspended at the time the report was written—nor did anyone from the DOE ever talk to Jensen or any of the other operators of the incinerator.
“Their spin in that report isn’t very convincing. The conclusions simply don’t match their findings,” comments Carpenter by phone, in a car on I-84 driving from Pocatello to Boise to give talks on consecutive nights about Jensen’s plight. Carpenter sees his client’s case as part of a larger scandal in the way the nation manages nuclear waste and production.
“These contractors, huge corporations, are given huge sums of money to manage toxic wastes, and they’re getting the money whether or not they do the job,” says Carpenter. “So they’re ripping off the taxpayer, and the DOE is constantly being embarrassed by them. But rather than come clean, the DOE brings them in for the standard finger-wagging in private, but then to save face, defends them publicly and in court.”
The victims in this scenario, according to Carpenter, are nuclear workers, who are exempted from the same protections that every other type of workplace is subject to. “You have to remember that nuclear facilities like the kind at INEEL are not subject to [federal workplace safety] regulations,” Carpenter says. “They’re allowed to self-regulate, which is akin to putting the captain of the Exxon Valdez in charge of the clean-up effort. The DOE in all these cases in the polluter, the contractor is simply doing what they’re told.”
A state away in Wyoming, Erik Ringelberg of Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free concurs. “INEEL is a poster child for nuclear mismanagement,” says Ringelberg. “One contractor [Bechtel] has a 3 billion-dollar contract that gets paid out if they meet only 80 percent of the standards set by INEEL. Then they get a bonus for everything they accomplish above and beyond that. In the first quarter of this year, they got a 14 million-dollar bonus, though no one is quite sure why the bonus was given out. The money is paid whether the standards are met or not. And these are the people who are supposed to be protecting their workers.”
For their part, INEEL and the Department of Energy are efficient and polite in their responses to inquiries on the Jensen case, though they seem to prefer faxes as a means of communicating their positions rather than dialogue with lawyers or spokespersons. Such documents possess, in syntax and content, an officially sanctioned factuality, as well as the government’s thick, familiar alphabet soup of acronyms used to describe the parties involved, from BBWI, shorthand for the contractor Bechtel, to SMC, for the Specific Manufacturing Capability where Jensen works.
Requests from the Independent to the Department of Energy for comment on Jensen’s case were met only with press releases that had already been issued in previous months. In a DOE news release dated Nov. 14, 2000, a spokesman describes the inspection report that was prompted by Jensen’s complaint:
“DOE identified some deficiencies in the health and safety program, and those were communicated to BBWI management for correction at the time they were identified ... employees were not always notified of potential work place hazards, but the hazards were identified and controls were in place to mitigate the hazards.
“‘Our primary concern is protection of our employees,’ says Jerry Bowman, DOE-ID Assistant Manager for Technical Support. ‘We believe BBWI has an effective program in place to protect workers at SMC, and they are working to resolve the deficiencies we noted. The next important step in resolving this employee [i.e., Jensen’s] concern is an independent medical review to determine if there is any correlation between the employee’s health problems and potential workplace exposures.’”
It’s an important step, Bowman fails to mention, that the DOE seems to have arrived at only after Jensen retained a lawyer and filed a formal complaint with an outside agency.
Carpenter points out that much of what the DOE does is sheltered from public scrutiny under the guise of national security, a privilege Carpenter thinks largely should have ended when the Cold War did.
“Look how they used Clint’s security clearance against him,” Carpenter points out. “They threatened him with firing after he filed his complaint with the labor department, and they used it to gag him after the complaint was filed. They use security to hide, they use it to gag, and they use it to cover up illegal operations. Dissent is a healthy part of healthy democracy, especially when it concerns a worker’s right to know and speak our without fear of reprisals.”
Still, a pervasive Cold War culture seems persistent at INEEL. When John Walsh, INEEL’s spokesman for legal and labor affairs, was contacted for this story, he was accommodating, cheerful and polite. In the same conversation, however, he denied access to a location no one had asked him about: “I can’t, of course, get you to the incinerator. That requires a security clearance to even get to that part of the compound, and besides, the incinerator hasn’t been running for about four months. I’ve been working here for a while, and I haven’t even been back there.”
Jensen is still working at INEEL, having returned from his latest health-related absence some three weeks ago. His case may be headed to trial within the next year.
Courting Trouble: Other battles surrounding Idaho’s infamous nuke lab
If, as the saying goes, litigation is the sport of kings, INEEL could be royals in the next year or two. Pending suits put the Idaho research facility in a slightly different light than the insert that appeared in the Missoulian last month. Here’s a quick summary of the cases in which INEEL will have their day in court.
• Neil Mock and Scott LeBow filed suit against INEEL contractors Lockheed Martin, EG&G, Westinghouse and Coleman Research Corp. Their 400-page case documents, filed in 1996 under the federal whistleblowers act but only recently completely unsealed, depict the conditions under which Mock and LeBow worked as auditors hired by INEEL to uncover possible unsafe practices for which the agency might be liable. The suit names two Lockheed Martin managers in charge of environmental compliance who allegedly told employees in 1996 not to disclose air pollution violations at the site’s radioactive waste incinerator or to document such violations.
The complaint also cites several occasions in which managers told employees the company could not afford to comply with all environmental laws.
A lunchroom conversation Mock had with Robert Bradley, performance oversight manager for Lockheed Martin in the mid-1990s is neatly described in the court papers. They claim Bradley said he “did not give a (expletive deleted) about the (expletive deleted) regulations” because the contractors “would never take a hit” and complying “did not make good business sense.” The U.S. Department of Justice balked at the opportunity to be co-plaintiff in this case, but the two former auditors are pressing on.
• Concurrently, Lockheed Martin and the Department of Energy are suing one another over Pit 9, a site at INEEL whose toxicity rivals any other federal nuke facility. Lockheed was contracted to clean up the mess but found levels of radioactivity there far beyond what the feds had represented when the contract was signed. According to Erik Ringelberg of the group Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, Lockheed couldn’t safely take human beings near the site for more than a few minutes at a time.
For more details, www.whistleblowers.com features a number of pages devoted specifically to INEEL.