by Alicia Inez Guzmán, Searchlight New Mexico
In a windowless corridor of PF-4, the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s plutonium processing facility, the deputy director of weapons stood among a cluster of journalists and National Nuclear Security Administration officials, all clad in anti-contamination lab coats and booties, safety goggles and dosimeters.
“It’s not that scary,” said Robert Webster, during a rare media tour of several rooms brimming with glove boxes, some almost as old as the Cold War-era building itself, others newly installed. “You just have to be careful.”
In these highly classified rooms, each task is the sum of its many protocols, a meticulous choreography that was palpable on a recent morning — June 22 — even in the absence of workers. The respirators, protective clothing, ventilation systems and dosimeters — fail-safes aimed, according to officials, at reducing or detecting the risk of exposure — are routine and required controls at “the plant,” as PF-4 is popularly known. Here, no task can be taken for granted and no movement unintended.
Five years ago, LANL began embarking on a controversial mission — to produce an annual quota of plutonium pits, the triggers for nuclear weapons. Matt Johnson, head of the lab’s Pit Technologies division, characterized it as “probably one of the safest places in New Mexico.”
A recent NNSA investigation portrays another version of the plant, a place cited for its “significant lack of attention or carelessness” in protecting workers and the public, as a Preliminary Notice of Violation read. Released on May 18, the findings detailed four “nuclear safety events” that took place over a five-month period in 2021, including one glove box breach, two floods, and an instance in which too much fissionable material was placed in one area.
The NNSA, as a result, withheld nearly $1.5 million from its 2021 contract award to Triad National Security, the organization that manages and operates the lab. (The NNSA, nonetheless, refrained from exacting additional civil penalties, which could have totalled an extra half a million dollars.)
Its 11-page report revealed an environment in which workers were either too underqualified to perform certain tasks or overburdened by too many tasks to perform them well. Another problem stemmed from faulty equipment, which had presented problems since 1990 and had not been replaced under Triad’s tenure, despite multiple requests.
The report emphasized that Triad routinely focused on “human errors rather than on the conditions that make those errors more likely.”
That particular oversight, in part, led to water entering a ventilation system for multiple rooms and glove boxes — the windowed, stainless-steel containers where radioactive materials are handled. According to the NNSA, it amounted to a violation of “criticality safety requirements.” Water has long been known to enhance fission and, in certain circumstances, cause plutonium to go critical, sending out a blast of blue light and radiation.
The four nuclear safety events cited by the NNSA represented only a small fraction of the many “process deviations” and compliance concerns around handling nuclear materials that have beset the plant since May 2018. That’s the same year the lab was recommended as one of two sites in the country to produce plutonium pits for nuclear warheads.
In an attempt to understand a fuller picture of risks at the plant, Searchlight New Mexico culled through the last five years of weekly reports by the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board (DNFSB), a federal watchdog that oversees the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and makes recommendations to the Department of Energy. An analysis like this has never been conducted before, according to the DNFSB.
Searchlight counted at least 100 process deviations at the plant during that period: a mix of safety incidents, emergency events and protocol violations. The examples were wide ranging — from construction accidents and small fires, to floods and worker contamination. Not all had the potential to be catastrophic, but at a facility like PF-4, the consequences can be much higher than in other workplaces.
In 2019, one worker was nearly felled by a 320-pound toxic nuclear waste container and, in 2020, another inhaled plutonium oxide powder — the most dangerous form of plutonium. There was a broken finger, a mysterious head injury and several instances in which containers of toxic waste were backlogged, up to 80 at one point, in a single storage room. The all-important protective gloves inside the glove boxes have on occasion become separated from their ports in the box wall; they’ve also torn on sharp objects or been worn down by tools or overuse. The DNFSB called glove box glove failures and floods “repeat events” — serious incidents they attribute to “poor conduct of operations.” Records show at least 20 such incidents in the last five years that resulted in several instances of skin contamination, though only 2 reports indicated an “uptake” — an absorption of plutonium into the body.
“NNSA is investing billions of dollars in production-related infrastructure at Los Alamos,” a DNFSB spokesperson wrote in an email to Searchlight, “and the Board is continuing to urge commensurate investment in the safety infrastructure needed to ensure workers and the public are adequately protected from potential accidents at PF-4.”
In the June 2020 glove box breach, the worker underwent chelation therapy for significant radiation — on hair, skin and by inhalation — when he “pulled out of the glovebox gloves after weighing and packaging plutonium-238 oxide powder.” As a soluble form of plutonium, oxide powder can begin to circulate in the bloodstream almost immediately and eventually end up in the liver and bones, according to reports. Fourteen other workers were also exposed in that same incident.
Searchlight found other incidents that could be considered outliers. In July 2021, for example, a 4.2 magnitude earthquake hit some 30 miles northwest of the lab, located within the Pajarito Fault System.
The plant’s new glove boxes have been built to withstand an earthquake, according to the DNFSB. But, there are “a large number of existing gloveboxes that do not meet current seismic standards,” the agency’s email to Searchlight made clear.
The worst possible scenario would be a cataclysmic earthquake that triggers a fire at the plant. For almost two decades, the DNFSB has argued that the building’s “passive confinement system” — essentially its capacity to prevent a release of radioactive material from leaking out and reaching the public — is insufficient. After years of back and forth on the matter, and piecemeal enhancements to the plant, the NNSA, in 2022, deemed significant upgrades, including to the ventilation system, were unnecessary — despite DNFSB’s strong recommendations to the contrary.
Another one-off event occurred in February 2019, when two electricians were “inadvertently locked inside a caged storage location” for 40 minutes. “During this time,” the DNFSB reported, “the workers would have been unable to properly respond to alarms associated with a nuclear criticality, an airborne radioactive material release, fire, or other emergency situations requiring egress.”
When asked about a recent spate of glove box and other safety matters at the plant, the lab responded with the following statement:
“PF-4 is one of the safest places in the country as a result of the many redundant safety and security measures in place to protect our workforce, the environment, and the community. We have ongoing programs to ensure the safe handling of materials at TA-55. In the case of glove box breaches, training and controls identified the breaches and allowed us to address them immediately. Employees’ personal protective equipment and the facility and room ventilation systems help keep workers safe at all times.”
Searchlight produced the interactive graphics in this story to help visualize the DNFSB reports. Searchlight’s counts are based on the findings of site inspectors and confirmed by the DNFSB. While there could be many reasons behind an incident, site inspectors categorized the events according to a complex set of procedures. The number of reported incidents in 2022 rose by 33 percent compared to the previous year. In 2022, Triad commenced round-the-clock operations.
Noah Raess contributed to the reporting of this story.
Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.