ByRebecca Moss, Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica |
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.
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 mid-2013, four federal nuclear safety experts brought an alarming message to the top official in charge of America’s warhead production: Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation’s sole site for making and testing a key nuclear bomb part, wasn’t taking needed safety precautions. The lab, they said, was ill-prepared to prevent an accident that could kill lab workers, and potentially others nearby. Some safety infractions had already occurred at the lab that year. But Neile Miller, who was then the acting head of the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, says those experts specifically told her that Los Alamos didn’t have enough personnel who knew how to handle plutonium so it didn’t accidentally go “critical” and start an uncontrolled chain reaction. Such chain reactions generate intense bursts of deadly radiation, and over the last half-century have claimed nearly two dozen lives.
A federal inspector contacted the Energy Department fraud hotline a few years back to flag irregularities in contracts that several nuclear weapons laboratories had signed with a former New Mexico Congresswoman whom President Trump has designated to become the new Air Force Secretary. A far-reaching probe ensued in Washington after the hotline contact, which ended in a demand that the weapons labs give back nearly a half-million dollars to the government. The former Congresswoman, Heather Wilson, has said she did not do anything wrong in trading on her Washington experience to become a “strategic adviser” to the labs. But internal Energy Department documents newly obtained by the Center for Public Integrity make clear that some of the contracting irregularities stemmed from demands specifically made by Wilson in her negotiations with the labs. Wilson’s nomination now represents the last chance for President Trump to get one of his first choices for service secretary installed.
When New Mexico Rep. Heather Wilson left Congress in 2009, she went to work the same month as a paid consultant for a subsidiary of weapons-contracting giant Lockheed Martin. That company then capitalized on Wilson’s extraordinary familiarity with Washington to craft a lobbying strategy meant to avoid having to compete for the renewal of a government contract that brought in huge profits. The strategy relied on discrete meetings between Lockheed officials and powerful members of the fledgling Obama Administration, key members of Congress, and influential Washingtonians who had also passed through the revolving door between government and private industry. Wilson, a Republican who had spent four years on the House Armed Services Committee and six years on the Intelligence Committee, spent five months drawing up a roadmap for Lockheed to achieve its key objective: Renewing its existing contract to manage Sandia National Laboratories, a wholly-owned subsidiary that helps make nuclear weapons and has an annual budget of more than $2 billion, without having to compete with any other firm — unlike most federal contractors. Fulfilling the classic role of a “nonlobbyist” strategic adviser, trading on information she gained while serving in public office, she told the firm exactly who they should approach for help.
ByPatrick Malone and Douglas Birch, Center for Public Integrity |
A team of experts has confirmed what the Energy Department has been saying for two years — that burying 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium would be far cheaper and more practical than completing a multibillion-dollar plant that would turn the radioactive material into commercial reactor fuel. The report raises pressure on Congress to walk away from a costly project that has been plagued by rapidly escalating costs and an absence of any customers for the fuel it is supposed to produce. The Department of Energy tried to kill the project in 2013, but Congress has kept it on budgetary life support, with the strong support of South Carolina’s congressional delegation. The study says essentially that sooner or later the Energy Department will be forced to abandon the fuel plant, and the sooner it does so the better. “The downward performance spiral [expected for the plant] is accompanied by an upward cost escalation spiral that would eventually make DOE’s path-forward decision for them,” the report concluded, “but only after a great deal of money has been wasted.”
The report was delivered to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz this week by an Energy Department “Red Team” led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thomas Mason.