Plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives and highly toxic chemicals have been improperly packaged or shipped by nuclear weapons contractors at least 25 times in the past five years, according to government documents.
While the materials were not ultimately lost, the documents reveal repeated instances in which hazardous substances vital to making nuclear bombs and their components were mislabeled before shipment. That means those transporting and receiving them were not warned of the safety risks and did not take required precautions to protect themselves or the public, the reports say.
The risks were discovered after regulators conducted inspections during transit, when the packages were opened at their destinations, during scientific analysis after the items were removed from packaging, or — in the worst cases — after releases of radioactive contaminants by unwary recipients, the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation showed.
Only a few, slight penalties appear to have been imposed for these mistakes.
In the most recent such instance, Los Alamos National Laboratory — a privately run, government-owned nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico — admitted five weeks ago that in June it had improperly shipped unstable, radioactive plutonium in three containers to two other government-owned labs via FedEx cargo planes instead of complying with federal regulations that required using trucks to limit the risk of an accident.
Los Alamos initially told the government that its decision stemmed from an urgent need for the plutonium at a federal lab in Livermore, California. But “there was no urgency in receiving this shipment — this notion is incorrect,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory spokeswoman Lynda Seaver said in an email message.
The incident, which came to light after a series of revelations by the Center for Public Integrity about other safety lapses at Los Alamos, drew swift condemnation by officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, D.C. It also provoked the Energy Department on June 23 to order a three-week halt to all shipments out of Los Alamos, the largest of the nuclear weapons labs and a linchpin in the complex of privately run facilities that sustains America’s nuclear arsenal.
“All of those involved from the individual contributor level up the management chain have been held accountable through actions that include terminations, suspensions and compensation consequences,” Los Alamos spokesman Matthew Nerzig said
A repeat offender
The documents show that Los Alamos, in particular, has been a repeat offender in mislabeling its shipments of hazardous materials: In a previously undisclosed 2012 case, for example, it sent unlabeled plutonium — a highly carcinogenic, unstable metal — to a University of New Mexico laboratory where graduate students sometimes work, according to internal government reports. The plutonium was opened accidentally there, leading to a contamination of the lab that required cleaning by the university and disposal of the debris by Los Alamos.
In total, 11 of the 25 known shipping mistakes since July 2012 involved shipments that either originated at Los Alamos or passed through the lab. Thirteen of the 25 incidents involved plutonium, highly enriched uranium (another nuclear explosive) or other radioactive materials. Some of the mislabeled shipments went to toxic waste dumps and breached regulatory limits on what the dumps were allowed to accept, according to the reports.
Patricia Klinger, a spokeswoman for DOT hazardous materials regulators, said in a telephone interview that ensuring all shipments are accurately labeled is vital to emergency personnel, whose safety and ability to protect the public in the event of an accident rely on correct knowledge of whatever they’re trying to clean up or contain. But she did not respond to questions about why the department only rarely appears to have imposed fines.
Internal NNSA records indicate that in the 25 incidents since July 2012, contractors drew three fines. In more than 20 instances, the contractors were not directly fined by regulators in enforcement actions stemming from the shipping errors.
Nerzig declined to comment about the shipment of unlabeled plutonium to the University of New Mexico’s nuclear engineering program. According to records obtained under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act, the university had expected to receive “dummy” metal sheets without radioactivity that faculty used to test radiation detectors Los Alamos had commissioned the university to develop.
Radioactive particles released
When one of the samples crimped during handling, it released radioactive particles that contaminated the room that housed the detector, but no one was harmed, according to Los Alamos’ report to the Energy Department. The lab was cleaned within a few days, but disposal and retrieval of the debris oddly took more than a year.
When the waste was shipped out, the university’s chief radiation safety officer at the time told members of the campus safety staff in an email that the disposal was “very difficult … due to the high radio-toxicity of the radionuclide.”
In the past three months, nuclear weapons contractors have made at least three shipping errors besides the errant FedEx plutonium shipments, according to Energy Department records.
In June, the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas, accidentally shipped an unsafe quantity of high explosives to an unspecified off-site laboratory. In May, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee shipped unlabeled radioactive materials to an unspecified destination. And in May, Los Alamos sent inaccurately labeled highly acidic waste to a Colorado chemical disposal site, according to New Mexico Environment Department records.
The previous December, shipping personnel at Savannah River sent a container of tritium gas — which is used to boost the potency of a nuclear detonation — to the wrong place. It was supposed to be shipped to Lawrence Livermore but instead was delivered to Sandia. And in September 2014, the contractors that operate the Nevada National Security Site inadvertently sent unlabeled radioactive material to their own satellite office at Livermore, which lacked a radiation-control expert trained to reckon with such a surprise, according to an internal Energy Department report.
This story is part of a series by the Center for Public Integrity examining safety weaknesses at U.S. nuclear weapon sites operated by corporate contractors.