Nuclear lab shutdown, safety lapses endanger US arsenal

An extended shutdown of the nation’s only scientific laboratory for producing and testing the plutonium cores for its nuclear weapons has taken a toll on America’s arsenal, with key work postponed and delays looming in the production of components for new nuclear warheads, according to government documents and officials.

The unique research and production facility is located at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, the birthplace of the U.S. atomic arsenal. The lab’s director ordered the shutdown in 2013 after the Washington, D.C., official in charge of America’s warhead production expressed worries that the facility was ill-equipped to prevent an accident that would kill its workers and potentially others nearby.

Parts of the facility began renewed operations last year, but with only partial success. And workers there last year were still violating safety rules for handling plutonium, the unstable man-made metal that serves as the sparkplug of the thermonuclear explosions that American bombs are designed to create.

Los Alamos’ persistent shortcomings in plutonium safety have been cited in more than 40 reports by government oversight agencies, teams of nuclear safety experts and the lab’s own employees over the past 11 years. Some of these reports say that safety takes a back seat to meeting specific goals for nuclear warhead maintenance and production by private contractors running the labs. Nuclear workers and experts say the contractors have been chasing lucrative government bonuses tied to those goals.

With key work at Los Alamos deferred due to safety problems, officials and experts say the United States risks falling behind on an ambitious $1 trillion update of its nuclear arsenal, which former President Barack Obama supported and President Donald Trump has said he wants to “greatly strengthen and expand.”

During the hiatus, Los Alamos has had to forgo 29 planned tests of the safety and reliability of plutonium cores in warheads now deployed atop U.S. submarine-launched and land-based missiles and in bombs carried by aircraft. The facility also hasn’t been able to make new plutonium cores to replace those regularly withdrawn from the nuclear arsenal for testing or to be fit into warheads, which are being modernized for those missiles and bombers at a projected cost of billions of dollars.

“The laboratory shut down an important facility doing important work,” said James McConnell, the associate administrator for safety, infrastructure and operations at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department, in a recent interview at the agency’s Washington headquarters. “What we didn’t have was the quality program that we want.”

Ernest Moniz, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist who served almost four years as Obama’s energy secretary, said in a separate interview that “we were obviously quite concerned about” the shutdown at Los Alamos. Moniz said he considered the situation there a “mess” and the testing interruption “significant.”

“I don’t think it has, at this stage, in any way seriously compromised” the nuclear arsenal, Moniz said. But he added that it was still his conviction that “obviously we’ve got to get back to that” work as soon as possible. A mock plutonium core was made at Los Alamos last year in a demonstration timed to coincide with a visit by Ashton Carter, then secretary of defense.

At a public hearing in Santa Fe on June 7, McConnell said that while Los Alamos is making progress, it is still unable to resolve the safety issue that provoked its shutdown four years ago, namely an acute shortage of engineers who are trained in keeping the plutonium at the facility from becoming “critical” and fissioning uncontrollably. “They’re not where we need them yet,” he said of the lab and its managers.

A February report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent safety advisory group chartered by Congress, detailed the magnitude of the gap. It said Los Alamos needs 27 fully qualified safety engineers specialized in keeping the plutonium for fissioning out of control. The lab has 10.

Some of the reports obtained by the Center for Public Integrity described flimsy workplace safety policies that left workers ignorant of proper procedures as well as incidents where plutonium was packed hundreds of times into dangerously close quarters or without the shielding needed to block a serious accident. The safety risks at the Los Alamos plutonium facility, which is known as PF-4, were alarmingly highlighted in August 2011, when a “criticality accident,” as it’s known, was narrowly averted, one of several factors prompting many safety officials there to quit.

A criticality accident is an uncontrolled chain reaction involving a fissionable material like plutonium that releases energy and generates a deadly burst of radiation. Its prevention has been an important challenge for the nuclear weapons program since the 1940s. Criticality accidents have occurred 60 times at various nuclear sites in the last half-century, causing a total of 21 agonizing deaths.

Three workers at Los Alamos died in preventable criticality accidents in the 1940s and 1950s. The most recent criticality-related deaths elsewhere occurred in 1999 at a factory north of Tokyo, where Japanese technicians accidentally mixed too much highly enriched uranium into some wide-mouth buckets. A burst of radiation – and its resulting characteristic blue glow – provoked school and road closures and the evacuation of those living nearby, plus a Japanese government order for 310,000 others to shelter in place.

The problems at Los Alamos were revealed by a year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, which also found several unpublicized accidents at other privately run U.S. nuclear facilities. The investigation, which can be read in full at the Center for Public Integrity’s website, also showed that the penalties imposed by the government for these errors were typically small, relative to the tens of millions of dollars the NNSA gives to each of the contractors annually in pure profit. Some contractors involved in repeated workplace safety incidents were also awarded contract extensions and renewals by officials in Washington.

Asked about the Los Alamos facility’s record, NNSA spokesman Gregory Wolf responded that “we expect our contractors to perform work in a safe and secure manner that protects our employees, our facilities, and the public. When accidents do occur, our focus is to determine causes, identify corrective actions and prevent recurrences.”

Kevin Roark, the spokesman for the consortium of firms hired by the government to run the lab, said in an email that he would defer to the NNSA’s response. Charles McMillan, the Los Alamos lab’s director since 2011, who receives government-funded compensation exceeding $1 million a year, declined to be interviewed about its safety records or the national security consequences of the shutdown. But he said in a 2015 promotional video that “the only way” the lab can accomplish its vital national security mission “is by doing it safely.”

Los Alamos’ handling of plutonium was the target of internal and external criticism a decade ago, around the time of its takeover by three profit-making firms — Bechtel National Inc., URS (now AECOM), and BWXT Government Group Inc. — in an alliance with the University of California. “We couldn’t prove we were safe,” said Douglas Bowen, a nuclear engineer on the laboratory’s criticality safety staff at the time, “not even close.”

In September 2007, the facility in question — technically known as PF-4 for Plutonium Facility Four and located in a highly secure part of the Los Alamos campus in the mountains above Santa Fe — was shut for a month while managers conducted new training and created an internal safety board to fix its problems. But in 2010, when the Energy Department did a checkup, it found “no official notes or records” the board had ever met, according to a report at the time.

Alarms were sounded more loudly after a nuclear technician positioned eight plutonium rods dangerously close together inside what is called a glovebox — a sealed container meant to contain the cancer-causing plutonium particles — on the afternoon of Aug. 11, 2011, to take a photograph for senior managers. Doing so posed the risk that neutrons emitted routinely by the metal in the rods would collide with the atoms of other particles, causing them to fission enough to provoke more collisions and begin an uncontrolled chain reaction of atom splitting.

As luck had it, a supervisor returned from her lunch break and noticed the dangerous configuration. But she then ordered the technician to reach into the box and move the rods apart, and a more senior lab official ordered others present to keep working. Both decisions increased, rather than diminished, the likelihood of an accident, because bodies — and even hands — contain water that can reflect and slow the neutrons, increasing the likelihood of a criticality and its resulting radiation burst.

“The weird thing about criticality safety is it’s not intuitive,” Don Nichols, a former chief for defense nuclear safety at NNSA, said in an interview. The calculations involved in avoiding criticality — which take account of the shape, size, form, quantity and geometric configuration of the plutonium as it moves through more than a dozen messy industrial processes — are so complex that it takes 18 months of training for an engineer to become qualified, and as many as five years to become proficient.

That’s why the consequences of the 2011 incident were so severe, even though a criticality did not occur. Virtually all the criticality specialists responsible for helping to keep workers safe at Los Alamos decided to quit, having become frustrated by the sloppy work demonstrated in the incident and what they considered the lab management’s callousness about nuclear risks when higher profits were at stake, according to interviews and government reports.

Bowen recalled frequently hearing an official with one of the private contractors running PF-4 say “we don’t even need a criticality-safety program,” and that the work was costing the contractor too much money. Former NNSA official Nichols confirmed the exodus of trained experts, saying that due to “some mismanagement, people voted with their feet. They left.” The attrition rate was around 100 percent, according to a “lessons-learned” report completed last month by the lab’s current criticality safety chief and the lone NNSA expert assigned to that issue in the agency’s Los Alamos oversight office.

The lab’s inability to fend off a deadly accident eventually became apparent to Washington.

Four NNSA staff members briefed Neile Miller, the agency’s acting administrator in 2013, in an anteroom of her office overlooking the Mall that year, Miller recalled. The precise risks did not need an explanation, she said. She said that criticality is “one of those trigger words” that should immediately get the attention of anyone responsible for preventing a nuclear weapons disaster.

With two of the four experts remaining in her office, Miller picked up the phone that day and called McMillan at the Los Alamos complex, which is financed by a federal payment exceeding $2 billion a year. She recommended that the key plutonium lab inside PF-4 be shut down, immediately, while the safety deficiencies were fixed.

McMillan responded that he had believed the problems could be solved while that lab kept operating, Miller said. He was “reluctant” to shut it down, she recalled. But as the telephone conversation proceeded, he became open to her view that the risks were too high, she added. So on McMillan’s order, the lab was shut within a day, with little public notice.

The exact cost to taxpayers of idling the facility is unclear, but an internal Los Alamos report estimated in 2013 that shutting down the facility where such work is conducted costs the government as much as $1.36 million a day in lost productivity.

Initially, McMillan promised the staff that a “pause” lasting less than a year wouldn’t cause “any significant impact to mission deliverables.” But at the end of 2013, a new group of safety experts commissioned by the lab declared in an internal report that “management has not yet fully embraced its commitment to criticality safety.” It listed nine weaknesses in the lab’s safety culture that were rooted in a “production focus” to meet deadlines. Workers say these deadlines are typically linked to managers’ financial bonuses.

Los Alamos’ leaders, the report said, had made the right promises, but failed to alter the underlying safety culture. “The focus appears to remain short-term and compliance-oriented rather than based on a strategic plan,” it said.

Shortfalls persisted in 2015, and new ones were discovered while the facility, still mostly shut down, was used for test runs. On May 6, 2015, for example, the NNSA sent Los Alamos’s managing contractors a letter again criticizing the lab for being slow to fix criticality risks. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board said the letter cited “more than 60 unresolved infractions,” many present for months “or even years.”

In January and again in April 2015, workers discovered tubes of liquids containing plutonium in seldom-used rooms at PF-4, with labels that made it hard to know how much plutonium the tubes held or where they’d come from, the safety board said. In May, workers packed a drum of nuclear waste with too much plutonium, posing a criticality risk, and in the ensuing probe, it became clear that they were relying on inaccurate and confusing documentation. Safety experts had miscalculated how much plutonium the drum could safely hold.

“These issues are very similar to the issues that contributed to the LANL Director’s decision to pause operations in June of 2013,” safety board inspectors wrote.

In 2016, for the third straight year, the Energy Department and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board each listed criticality safety at Los Alamos as one of the most pressing problems facing the nuclear weapons program, in their annual reports to Congress. “Required improvements to the Criticality Safety program are moving at an unacceptably slow pace,” the most recent NNSA performance evaluation of Los Alamos, released in Nov. 2016, said.

Hazardous operations at PF-4 slowly started to resume in 2016, but problems continued. In June, after technicians working in a glovebox spilled about 7 tablespoons of a liquid containing plutonium, workers violated safety rules by sopping up the spill with organic cheesecloth and throwing it in waste bins with other nuclear materials, posing the risk of a chemical reaction and fire, according to an internal Los Alamos report. A similar chemical reaction stemming from the sloppy disposal of Los Alamos’s nuclear waste in 2014 provoked the shutdown of a deep-underground storage site in New Mexico for the waste for more than two years, a Department of Energy accident investigation concluded. That incident cost the government more than a billion dollars in cleanup and other expenses

Frank Klotz, the NNSA director, has tried to be upbeat. In March, he told hundreds of nuclear contractors packed into a Washington hotel ballroom for an industry gathering that PF-4 was fully back in business, having “safely resumed all plutonium activities there after a three-year pause.”

Klotz said the updated nuclear weapons would be delivered “on time and on budget.”

But a subsequent analysis by the Government Accountability Office clashed with Klotz’s description. In an April report on costs associated with the NNSA’s ongoing weapons modernization, the GAO disclosed the existence of an internal NNSA report forecasting that PF-4 will be unable to meet the plutonium-pit production deadlines.

Moreover, late last year when Los Alamos conducted its first scheduled invasive test of a plutonium pit since the shutdown of PF-4 more than three years ago, it did not produce the needed results, according to NNSA’s annual evaluation of Los Alamos’ performance last year. The test involved the core of a refurbished warhead scheduled to be delivered to the Navy by the end of 2019 for use atop the Trident missiles carried by U.S. submarines. A second attempt involving a different warhead was canceled because the safety analysis was incomplete, NNSA’s evaluation said.

The purpose of such stockpile surveillance tests, as Vice President Joe Biden said in a 2010 National Defense University speech, is to “anticipate potential problems and reduce their impact on our arsenal.” Weapons designers say these tests are akin to what car owners would do if they were storing a vehicle for years while still expecting the engine to start and the vehicle to speed down the road at the sudden turn of a key.

At the public hearing in Santa Fe on June 7, NNSA’s McConnell said the agency is studying whether to keep plutonium-pit operations at Los Alamos. Options being considered include upgrading the facilities there or “adding capabilities or leveraging existing capabilities elsewhere in the country, at other sites where plutonium is already present or has been used.”

Active NNSA sites that fit that description include the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, the Pantex plant in Texas and the Nevada National Security Site. The NNSA expects to complete its analysis by late summer.


This article is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C.

Nye County detectives pursue suspects
A swarm of Nye County deputies, at the request of Las Vegas police, surrounded a hotel room in Pahrump last week to take two fugitives into custody. (Nye County Sheriff's Office)
Taxpayer-funded LVCVA boss negotiating exit pay despite criminal investigation
CEO Rossi Ralenkotter is the third-highest-paid public official in the state He has a pay and benefits package valued at $863,000 annually. Ralenkotter does not have an employment contract He announced his retirement in mid June, amid a scandal over airline gift cards LVCVA bought $90,000 in Southwest Airline gift cards between 2012 and 2017. Now auditors can’t account for more than $50,000 of the cards. Ralenkotter and his family used $16,207 in gift cards on 56 trips. Brig Lawson, the senior director of business partnerships, was responsible for buying and distributing the cards. He recently resigned. Ralenkotter's retirement settlement package could cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.
Bicyclists ride empty Interstate 11 before it opens Aug. 9
Southern Nevada Bicycle Coalition sponsored a 25-mile ride on the yet-to-be-opened Interstate 11 to highlight bicycle and motorist safety. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Paul Fronczak on his search for truth
Paul Fronczak, man mistaken for stolen baby in 1964, talks about the long search for his twin sister and the real Paul. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
1 dead after shooting near Sahara and the Strip in Las Vegas
Lt. Ray Spencer briefs the news media on a shooting at Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South that left one dead. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Family remembers deceased mother
Family members of Adriann Gallegos remember her. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
2 in custody after chase
Two people were in custody after a chase involving Nevada Highway Patrol and Nye County Sheriff"s office deputies ended in southwest Las Vegas. Las Vegas police blocked off Rainbow Boulevard north of Tropicana Avenue around 1 a.m. Wednesday. Law enforcement personnel prepared to tow a black sedan as part of their investigation. It's not certain what precipitated the chase or where and when it started. Check back for updates.
Police Officer's Vehicle Was Taken During Shooting
Video from body worn camera footage released by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Wednesday shows an officer realizing his police vehicle has been taken during the chaos of the Route 91 shooting. It was later recovered at Sunrise hospital with the keys in the ignition and nothing removed. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
See Kitty Hawk’s flying car cruise over Lake Las Vegas
Kitty Hawk takes their flying car for a ride in the company’s hidden test facility in Lake Las Vegas. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
Watch Las Vegas police wild pursuit through busy Las Vegas streets
An intense chase near Downtown Las Vegas ends after gunfire is exchanged as the suspect flees on busy streets and ends up near an elementary school. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
Man shot strolling through park
A man was hospitalized early Tuesday morning after being shot while walking in a central Las Vegas park. Las Vegas police say the man and a woman were in Molasky Park just after midnight when the man was shot. The pair ran to a nearby supermarket where a security guard called for help. The man was hospitalized and as of 3 a.m. was in stable condition. Police have yet to identify the shooter and no suspects are in custody.
Police investigating shooting at east valley apartment complex
No one was injured late Monday night after someone fired shots at a vehicle at an east valley apartment complex. Police responded just before midnight to the Hamptons Apartments, 3070 S. Nellis Blvd. Someone fired shots at a vehicle that was leaving the complex, and struck the vehicle. Another bullet struck a nearby apartment building. The shooter or shooters remain at-large.
Suspect fires at Las Vegas police before officers shoot, end wild pursuit
An intense chase near Downtown Las Vegas ends after gunfire is exchanged as the suspect flees on busy streets and ends up near an elementary school. (Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department)
Hundreds Attend Slides, Rides and Rock and Roll in North Las Vegas
Hundreds attended the inaugural slides, rides and rock and roll event in North Las Vegas Saturday. The event featured a car show, water slide park and live music. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
It's All Rainbows At The Center's New Cafe
The Gay and Lesbian Center of Southern Nevada (The Center) introduced its new coffeeshop, Little Rainbow Cafe, in June. Rainbows are everywhere, even in the lattes and toast, and employees wear t-shirts with the quote "Be a rainbow in someone's cloud." Owner Ben Sabouri said the concept is "built around the idea of, you know, be kind and treat everybody the same." (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Get a Rainbow Latte at the The Center's Little Rainbow Cafe
The Center, a community center for the LGBTQ community of Southern Nevada, has a new cafe. Little Rainbow Cafe serves up a pride-inspired signature "Rainbow Latte." (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pedestrian killed trying to cross Sahara
A pedestrian was killed Friday trying to cross Sahara Avenue near Maryland Parkway about 5 a.m. A sedan struck the pedestrian while the person was outside the crosswalk between Maryland Parkway and Pardee Place, according to Las Vegas police. Police also said the driver of the sedan remained at the site of the crash. The pedestrian was pronounced dead at the scene. This is the 75th fatal crash that Las Vegas police have investigated in 2018.
Man shot multiple times
Las Vegas police are investigating after a man was shot multiple times early Friday morning. The shooting was called in about 3:20 a.m. at the Harbor Island Apartments, 370 E. Harmon Ave., near Koval Lane. The man was hospitalized and is expected to survive, but police are still searching for the shooter.
Former Military Police Corps Officer Celebrates 100th Birthday
Summerlin resident Gene Stephens, who served as a military policeman in WWII and escorted then-Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and President Roosevelt during the war, turned 100 on July 13, 2018. He credits his longevity to living a normal life, exercising regularly and eating three square meals a day. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Motorcyclist suffers serious injuries
A motorcycle rider was seriously injured Tuesday night after a crash on Charleston Boulevard. The crash was reported just before 10 p.m. near Durango Drive, according to Las Vegas police. The motorcyclist was hospitalized with unknown injuries but is expected to survive. Las Vegas police are investigating the cause of the accident.
CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara Has Lunch With Students
New Clark County School District superintendent Jesus Jara continued his listening tour by having lunch with students at Red Rock Elementary School as part of the district's summer lunch program. In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, children under the age of 18 can find a free lunch at 104 different locations across the valley through the summer months. Jara highlighted the free program and the importance of eating healthy during his visit. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Timeline Leading Up to Scott Dozier's Execution
Scott Dozier is set to be executed by lethal injection the night of July 11 at Ely State Prison. Dozier was convicted of the April 2002 killing of 22-year-old Jeremiah Miller and was given the death penalty in Oct. 2007. In 2016 Dozier asked in a letter to District Judge Jennifer Togliatti requesting that he “be put to death.” A three-drug cocktail of midazolam, a sedative; the painkiller fentanyl; and cisatracurium, a paralytic, is expected to end his life. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Program Helps Mothers Battling Addiction
Jennifer Stanert has battled drug addiction on and off for the last 21 years. It caused her to lose custody of one of her children, Alec, after she gave birth while high. A new program at Dignity Health St. Rose Dominican Hospitals aims to connect mothers like Stanert with community resources and provide case management services while still pregnant to get connected to lactation and parenting classes, group peer support and education on neonatal abstinence syndrome. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Felon caught with guns in Mandalay Bay room 3 years before Las Vegas shooting
A felon was caught with guns in a Mandalay Bay hotel room three years before the October 1st mass shooting. Six weapons were found inside Kye Aaron Dunbar’s 24th floor room in November 2014. Four were semi-automatic. One was a scoped rifle pointing toward the Strip, according to court documents. Dunbar was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison for unlawful possession. The case just came to light in a lawsuit accusing Mandalay Bay of negligence in connection with the Oct. 1st shooting.
Illegal fireworks in the Las Vegas area garner complaints
Clark County received nearly 25,000 complaints over the Independence Day holiday on a new illegal fireworks site. Reports from the site led to at least 10 illegal fireworks busts across the valley overnight. As of Thursday morning, the county is still compiling the total number of citations issued.
House fire displaces 2 people
Two people were displaced after a house fire early Thursday morning. The fire, at 963 Temple Drive in east Las Vegas, was reported just after midnight, according to a battalion chief from the Clark County Fire Department. Crews from the North Las Vegas and Las Vegas fire departments also were called in to help. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
"Red White and Boom" July 4 Fireworks at the Stratosphere
Full video of the Fourth of July "Red White and Boom" fireworks show at the Stratosphere as seen from the 8th floor Elation Pool. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
July 4th fireworks at the Eureka Casino Resort in Mesquite
July 4th fireworks at the Eureka Casino Resort in Mesquite. (7-04-18) (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Crowds Enjoy Fireworks at the Stratosphere
Revelers enjoyed watching fireworks displays from the Stratosphere's 8th floor Elation pool on July 4. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pedestrian killed in Henderson
A pedestrian trying to cross St. Rose Parkway at Bermuda was hit by a vehicle on Tuesday night and later died. The crash was reported around 11:30 p.m. Las Vegas police responded initially, but handed over the investigation to Henderson police once it was determined the accident happened in their jurisdiction. Las Vegas police did respond to a report of a pedestrian being hit by a vehicle on the Strip. The person, who was hit by a BMW near Fashion Show mall, suffered serious but not life-threatening injuries.
News Headlines
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like