A near-disaster at a federal nuclear weapons laboratory takes a hidden toll on America's arsenal

Technicians at the government’s Los Alamos National Laboratory settled on what seemed like a surefire way to win praise from their bosses in August 2011: In a hi-tech testing and manufacturing building pivotal to sustaining America’s nuclear arsenal, they gathered eight rods painstakingly crafted out of plutonium, and positioned them side-by-side on a table to photograph how nice they looked.

At many jobs, this would be innocent bragging. But plutonium is the unstable, radioactive, man-made fuel of a nuclear explosion, and it isn’t amenable to showboating. When too much is put in one place, it becomes “critical” and begins to fission uncontrollably, spontaneously sparking a nuclear chain reaction, which releases energy and generates a deadly burst of radiation.
The resulting blue glow — known as Cherenkov radiation — has accidentally and abruptly flashed at least 60 times since the dawn of the nuclear age, signaling an instantaneous nuclear charge and causing a total of 21 agonizing deaths. So keeping bits of plutonium far apart is one of the bedrock rules that those working on the nuclear arsenal are supposed to follow to prevent workplace accidents. It’s Physics 101 for nuclear scientists, but has sometimes been ignored at Los Alamos.

As luck had it that August day, a supervisor returned from her lunch break, noticed the dangerous configuration, and ordered a technician to move the rods apart. But in so doing, she violated safety rules calling for a swift evacuation of all personnel in “criticality” events, because bodies — and even hands — can reflect and slow the neutrons emitted by plutonium, increasing the likelihood of a nuclear chain reaction. A more senior lab official instead improperly decided that others in the room should keep working, according to a witness and an Energy Department report describing the incident.

Catastrophe was avoided and no announcement was made at the time about the near-miss — but officials internally described what happened as the most dangerous nuclear-related incident at that facility in years. It then set in motion a calamity of a different sort: Virtually all of the Los Alamos engineers tasked with keeping workers safe from criticality incidents decided to quit, having become frustrated by the sloppy work demonstrated by the 2011 event and what they considered the lab management’s callousness about nuclear risks and its desire to put its own profits above safety.

When this exodus was in turn noticed in Washington, officials there concluded the privately-run lab was not adequately protecting its workers from a radiation disaster. In 2013, they worked with the lab director to shut down its plutonium handling operations so the workforce could be retrained to meet modern safety standards.

Those efforts never fully succeeded, however, and so what was anticipated as a brief work stoppage has turned into a nearly four-year shutdown of portions of the huge laboratory building where the plutonium work is located, known as PF-4.
Officials privately say that the closure in turn undermined the nation’s ability to fabricate the cores of new nuclear weapons and obstructed key scientific examinations of existing weapons to ensure they still work. The exact cost to taxpayers of idling the facility is unclear, but an internal Los Alamos report estimated in 2013 that shutting down the lab where such work is conducted costs the government as much as $1.36 million a day in lost productivity.

And most remarkably, Los Alamos’s managers still have not figured out a way to fully meet the most elemental nuclear safety standards. When the Energy Department on Feb. 1 released its annual report card reviewing criticality risks at each of its 24 nuclear sites, ranging from research reactors to weapon labs, Los Alamos singularly did “not meet expectations.”

In fact, Los Alamos violated nuclear industry rules for guarding against a criticality accident three times more often last year than the Energy Department’s 23 other nuclear installations combined, that report said. Because of its shortcomings, federal permission has not been granted for renewed work with plutonium liquids, needed to purify plutonium taken from older warheads for reuse, normally a routine practice.

Moreover, a year-long investigation by the Center makes clear that pushing the rods too closely together in 2011 wasn’t the first time that Los Alamos workers had mishandled plutonium and risked deaths from an inadvertent burst of radiation. Between 2005 and 2016, the lab’s persistent and serious shortcomings in “criticality” safety have been criticized in more than 40 reports by government oversight agencies, teams of nuclear safety experts, and the lab’s own staff.

The technicians’ improvised photo-op, an internal Energy Department report concluded later, revealed the staff had become “de-sensitized” to the risk of a serious accident. Other reports have described flimsy workplace safety policies that repeatedly left workers uninformed of proper procedures and left plutonium packed hundreds of times into dangerously close quarters or without appropriate shielding to prevent a serious accident.

Workplace safety, many of the reports say, has frequently taken a back seat to profit-seeking at the Los Alamos, New Mexico, lab — which is run by a group of three private firms and the University of California — as managers there chase lucrative government bonuses tied to accomplishing specific goals for producing and recycling the plutonium parts of nuclear weapons.

And these safety challenges aren’t confined to Los Alamos. The Center’s probe revealed a frightening series of glaring worker safety risks, previously unpublicized accidents, and dangerously lax management practices. The investigation further revealed that the penalties imposed by the government on the private firms that make America’s nuclear weapons were typically just pinpricks, and that instead the firms annually were awarded large profits in the same years that major safety lapses occurred. Some were awarded new contracts despite repeated, avoidable accidents, including some that exposed workers to radiation.

Asked about this record, spokesman Gregory Wolf of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees and pays for the country’s nuclear weapons work, 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.”

His colleague James McConnell, the top NNSA safety official, said in an interview that “safety is an inherent part of everything we do.” But at a public hearing in Santa Fe on June 7, McConnell was also candid about Los Alamos’s failure to meet federal standards. “They’re not where we need them yet,” he said of the lab and its managers.

Los Alamos spokesman Kevin Roark said in an email the lab chose to defer to NNSA for its response. But the lab’s director over the past seven years, nuclear physicist Charles McMillan, said in a 2015 promotional video that while “we’ve got to do our mission” — which he said was vital to the nation’s security as well as the world’s stability — “the only way we can do that is by doing it safely.”

No usable warhead production for four years

The huge, 39-year-old, two-story, rectangular building at Los Alamos where the 2011 incident occurred is the sole U.S. site that makes plutonium cores — commonly known pits because they are spherical and placed near the center of nuclear bombs — for the warheads meant to be installed over the next three decades in new U.S. missiles, bombers, and submarines.
Production of these cores is a key part of the country’s effort to modernize its nuclear arsenal at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, which President Obama supported and President Trump has said he wants to “greatly strengthen and expand.” Trump’s proposed fiscal year 2017 and 2018 budgets would boost U.S. spending on such work by $1.4 billion, representing a slightly higher percentage increase (11%) than requested overall for the Defense Department.

But mostly because of the Los Alamos lab’s safety deficiencies, it hasn’t produced a usable new warhead core in at least six years. Congress mandated in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that Los Alamos must be capable of manufacturing up to 20 war-ready cores a year by 2025, 30 the next year and 80 by 2027. Wolf said the agency remains committed to meeting this goal, but other government officials say the dramatic slowdown at PF-4 has put fulfillment of that timetable in doubt.

PF-4 is also the only place where existing cores removed randomly from the arsenal can be painstakingly tested to see if they remain safe and reliable for use in the nuclear stockpile. That work has also been blocked, due to PF-4’s extended shutdown, according to internal DOE reports.

The lab tried to conduct those tests in late 2016, but without success. The initial experiment destroyed a plutonium pit without collecting useful results about its safety or reliability, the latest annual review of Los Alamos’ performance by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) stated. The lab canceled a second planned pit analysis in 2016, according to the NNSA’s annual evaluation of the lab’s performance.

“I don’t think they’ve made mission goals the last four years,” said Michaele Brady Raap, a past president of the American Nuclear Society and member of the Energy Department’s elite Criticality Safety Support Group, a team of 12 government experts that analyzes and recommends ways to improve struggling federal nuclear safety programs.

The lab’s criticality safety shortcomings have been so persistent that NNSA in August 2015 threatened to fine Los Alamos’ managing contractors more than a half-million dollars for failing to correct them. In the end, the NNSA administrator decided to not to impose the fine, exemplifying what critics allege is a climate of impunity for mistakes within DOE.
“There is no doubt, they have had some management and operational problems,” said MIT Professor Ernest Moniz, who served as the Obama administration’s Energy Secretary from 2013 until the end of January, speaking about Los Alamos’s handling of nuclear safety. “We were obviously quite concerned about it.”

Moniz said in an interview with the Center that the laboratory’s lapses had played a role in the department’s decision last year not to extend its existing management contract. Instead, the contract was opened to a new competition, with the winner expected to be named in early 2018 and take over the lab in Sept. 2018. Moniz added, however, that in 2016 the lab “started to turn things around.”

But others see Los Alamos’s conduct differently. “There’s a systemic issue here,” said Brady Raap. “There are a lot of things there at Los Alamos that are examples of what not to do.”

George Anastas, a past president of the Health Physics Society who analyzed dozens of internal government reports about criticality problems at Los Alamos for the Center, said he wonders if “the work at Los Alamos can be done somewhere else? Because it appears the safety culture, the safety leadership, has gone to hell in a handbasket.”

Anastas said the reports, spanning more than a decade, describe “a series of accidents waiting to happen.” The lab, he said, is “dodging so many bullets that it’s scary as hell.”

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