Key sites proposed for nuclear bomb production are plagued by safety problems

The Department of Energy is scheduled to decide within days where plutonium parts for the next generation of nuclear weapons are to be made, but recent internal government reports indicate serious and persistent safety issues plague both of the two candidate sites. An announcement by the Trump administration about the location is expected by May 11, in preparation for the ramped-up production of nuclear warheads called for by the Defense Department’s recent review of America’s nuclear weapons policy. This story originally appeared at the Center for Public Integrity. Some experts are worried about the safety records of either choice: Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where plutonium parts have historically been assembled, and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where other nuclear materials for America’s bombs have been made since in the 1950s. Recent internal government reports obtained by the Center for Public Integrity have warned that workers at these plants have been handling nuclear materials sloppily, or have failed to monitor safety issues aggressively.

Federal watchdog identifies new workplace safety problems at Los Alamos Lab

Los Alamos National Laboratory has failed to keep track of a toxic metal used in nuclear weapons production, potentially exposing workers to serious health consequences, a federal watchdog has found. The New Mexico lab’s failure to adequately track beryllium — small amounts of which can cause lung disease and cancer — violates federal regulations put in place to prevent worker overexposure, according to a report last week from the Department of Energy’s inspector general. The report is the latest example of serious workplace safety violations that have occurred at Los Alamos — which gave birth to the atomic bomb during World War II — including radioactive contamination and other injuries to workers. In October, for example, an independent federal safety board said the lab was ill equipped to respond to emergencies and found recurring flaws in emergency preparedness dating back to 2011. Soon after, the Department of Energy launched an investigation following a “near-miss” incident in which a worker responded to an alarm and entered an oxygen-deprived room, which could have resulted in asphyxiation.

Nuclear weapons contractors repeatedly violate shipping rules for dangerous materials

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.

Light penalties and lax oversight encourage weak safety culture at nuclear weapons labs

The plan on a hot summer day was to liquefy highly flammable lithium at a temperature of more than 750 degrees and then pump it into a special chamber for cooling, as part of a research project at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.  But what happened instead in August 2011 was a near-catastrophe that could easily have killed two workers. The experiment was designed to help learn more about lithium’s potential use in an advanced nuclear reactor. But it went awry when someone turned the wrong valve and the heater holding the lithium cracked, causing the molten liquid to leak and spray abruptly onto a pipe holding the coolant. The result was a steam explosion, a hydrogen explosion — or likely both — in the lab’s Plasma Materials Test Facility.