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.
Last week, a United Nations group signed a draft treaty to prohibit the development, manufacturing and testing of nuclear weapons. When President Donald Trump pulled the United States back from global climate change action earlier this year, that move was met with outrage from many, including elected leaders, across the country. The international action banning nuclear weapons has received far less attention, including here in New Mexico where many communities have been wedded to nuclear weapons research, production and waste since World War II. Today, the U.S. and Russia together control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Eight countries have tested nuclear weapons, and currently, the United States remains the only one to have deployed nuclear weapons outside of tests.
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.
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 U.S. Senate panel’s confirmation hearing for former New Mexico congresswoman Heather Wilson stuck mostly to the nuts and bolts of what her duties as the next secretary of the Air Force may entail. But her previous scandals related to her post-Congress business connections came up more than once during the three hour meeting before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday morning. The panel did not vote on Wilson’s nomination to the post. The committee’s ranking member Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, posed questions to Wilson about her controversies working as a private contractor for national laboratories and her lobbying for weapons contractor Lockheed Martin. In quizzing Wilson about her private defense contracting work, Reed brought up the conclusions of a federal investigation that found that Sandia National Laboratories wrongly paid Wilson for services that federal law bars compensation for.
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.
I’ll admit I took a break from the news over the holiday—a break from writing it and a break from reading it. Now that I’m catching up on what happened around New Mexico, I thought I’d share some of the most important environment news from the past couple of weeks. Because maybe some of these things slipped through your news feed, too. Jobs, jobs, jobs
The Carlsbad Current-Argus reported that Halliburton announced that it’s looking for 200 workers in the Permian Basin as it anticipates ramping up production. According to the story, the energy industry is planning to expand drilling in southern New Mexico and Texas, thanks to a rise in oil prices and increased political support.
This story was originally published and produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Standing next to a 12-foot nuclear bomb that looks more like a trim missile than a weapon of mass destruction, engineer Phil Hoover exudes pride. “I feel a real sense of accomplishment,” he said. He and fellow engineers at Sandia National Laboratories have spent the past few years designing, building and testing the top-secret electronic and mechanical innards of the sophisticated B61-12. Later, when nuclear explosives are added at the federal Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, the bomb will have a maximum explosive force equivalent to 50,000 tons of TNT – more than three times more powerful than the U.S. atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, 70 years ago this August that killed more than 130,000 people.