Worker detonates water bottle bomb in radioactive warehouse

By Hannah Hess | 04/25/2016 03:53 PM EDT

Investigators believe a disgruntled Department of Energy employee, mad about broken showers in the men’s locker room, built and detonated an improvised explosive device in a Pike County, Ohio, warehouse that contained 55-gallon drums of low-level radioactive waste.

The device — a water bottle spiked with hydrochloric acid — created an explosion described by one witness as "louder than a 20 gauge shotgun," according to an investigative report by DOE’s Office of Inspector General that was not disclosed to the public.

Only the employee believed to be behind the stunt was injured in the blast, which occurred shortly after 10 a.m. Aug. 7, 2014, in the controlled access area of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

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Co-workers found the unidentified suspect splattered in "wet liquid" near a toolbox, acting calmly, with no complaints of injuries, according to the OIG documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

"I am not burning," he announced to a supervisor, who went to investigate after hearing the "loud bang" from the waste recycling warehouse.

The employee, who had previously been singled out for "erratic" and "childish" behavior, such as throwing things at his colleagues, was escorted to the medical unit. Health workers there examined him and cleared him to return to work.

On a personal statement form submitted after the accident to Fluor-BWXT Portsmouth LLC — the DOE contractor in charge of decontamination, decommissioning and remediation — the employee reported he felt a "concussion and blast" on the left side of his head and body that affected his left ear.

When asked for lessons learned from the event, he responded: "Need more safety showers and building water for the showers NOTE! Our shower water has been out since June 11, 2014 — C’mon man it’s a sanitary H2O line. I though we had real engineers this time span tells me the system is broke — So fix it get personnel in that can fix it like hourly maintenance," according to the report.

The employee, who co-workers said was "extremely upset" over a broken shower in the building, was the only person in the area at the time of the explosion, said the OIG report.

An employee of Wastren-EnergX Mission Support LLC, the contractor in charge of facility support services at Portsmouth, filed a complaint about the incident with the OIG the day after the blast.

Three days later, the FBI got involved.

Investigators collected DNA and fingerprints from the scene, took photographs and started interviewing witnesses. They learned other employees had requested not to work with the suspect, and that he had been in trouble before for violating the dress code.

"You can change my clothes but not change the boy," one employee recalled him stating loudly that spring. The suspect had just returned to work after being disciplined for wearing improper attire.

Employees told the OIG that they heard the man talking about making explosive devices "when he was in high school." One co-worker recalled an encounter with the suspect at a Waverly, Ohio, Wal-Mart where he seemed "extremely pumped up" when talking about the explosion. The man allegedly bragged the stunt was "just one more thing" he would "get away with."

Attempts to prosecute the suspect failed.

Fingerprints and swabs from the water bottle did not provide enough forensic evidence for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, state Fire Marshal Laboratory, or Oak Ridge Police Department in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to further the probe.

The OIG marked the case as closed last year, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cincinnati and the Pike County district attorney both declined prosecution.

The report does not say whether the suspect was disciplined for the incident. DOE referred the question to Fluor.

A spokesman for the company told E&ENews PM that the person involved in the incident was "no longer with the company."