ByRebecca Moss, Santa Fe New Mexican and ProPublica |
Despite a lengthy record of safety violations, the University of California will continue its 75-year legacy of running Los Alamos National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration announced Friday. A management partnership that includes the university, research and development nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute and Texas A&M University, the alma mater of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, will be paid $2.5 billion annually to run Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb. They’re calling their partnership Triad National Security LLC. The contract could be worth upward of $25 billion over the next decade, with hundreds of millions of dollars more in performance-based bonus fees. Six other corporations will join the team in support roles.
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.
ByRebecca Moss, The Santa Fe New Mexican/ProPublica |
Nearly three years ago, President Barack Obama responded to long-standing concerns that workers exposed to toxic chemicals at the country’s nuclear weapons labs were not receiving proper compensation. Obama created an advisory board to be composed of scientists, doctors and worker advocates. Their recommendations have led to significant changes, including the repeal of a rule that made it more difficult for workers who’d been injured in the last two decades to get compensation. President Donald Trump and his administration have taken a different approach: His Labor Department has let nearly all of the board member’s terms expire — and so far hasn’t nominated new ones. “For two years our board put a lot of brain power and cutting-edge expertise into developing recommendations,” said Ken Silver, an occupational health professor at Eastern Tennessee State University, who until last month was a board member.
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.
The chairman of a panel charged with protecting workers at nuclear weapons facilities as well as nearby communities has told the White House he favors downsizing or abolishing the group, despite recent radiation and workplace safety problems that injured or endangered people at the sites it helps oversee. Republican appointee Sean Sullivan, a former Navy submarine officer, told the director of the Office of Management and Budget in a private letter that closing or shrinking the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board he chairs is consistent with President Trump’s ambition to cut the size of the federal workforce, according to a copy of Sullivan’s letter. It was written in June and obtained recently by the Center for Public Integrity. The five-member Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, chartered by Congress, has helped persuade the federal government to impose tighter safety rules and regulations at most of the eight nuclear weapons sites — employing more than 40,000 workers — where nuclear weapons and their parts are produced or stored. Nonetheless, the nuclear weapons complex in recent years has experienced alarming problems, including the mishandling of plutonium, a radioactive explosive; the mis-shipment of hazardous materials, including nuclear explosive materials; and the contamination of work areas and scientists by radioactive particles — shortcomings detailed in a recent Center for Public Integrity investigation. Sullivan’s position is consistent with the longstanding preferences of the large private contractors that produce and maintain the country’s nuclear arms, most of which also contribute heavily to congressional election campaigns and spend sizable sums lobbying Washington.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Los Alamos National Laboratory says firing workers and putting stricter controls in place are only the first steps it’s taking to protect the public as it prepares to accelerate production of a key plutonium component for the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal. The Los Alamos lab has been under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Energy for repeated violations of safety protocols, including mishandling of plutonium and nuclear waste. Greg Mello, who heads the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said this week’s announcement of some firings and new rules shows accountability, but more internal reform is needed. “No, we won’t be satisfied, because the underlying structural problems that lead to so many management mistakes are not even close to being fixed,” Mello said. The Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration have already started a bidding process for new management to oversee the Los Alamos facility, but they insist the repeated violations have nothing to do with seeking the new contract.
Byby Robert Faturechi, ProPublica, and Danielle Ivory, The New York Times |
President Trump entered office pledging to cut red tape, and within weeks, he ordered his administration to assemble teams to aggressively scale back government regulations. But the effort — a signature theme in Trump’s populist campaign for the White House — is being conducted in large part out of public view and often by political appointees with deep industry ties and potential conflicts. Most government agencies have declined to disclose information about their deregulation teams. But ProPublica and The New York Times identified 71 appointees, including 28 with potential conflicts, through interviews, public records and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Some appointees are reviewing rules their previous employers sought to weaken or kill, and at least two may be positioned to profit if certain regulations are undone. The appointees include lawyers who have represented businesses in cases against government regulators, staff members of political dark money groups, employees of industry-funded organizations opposed to environmental rules and at least three people who were registered to lobby the agencies they now work for.
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.
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.