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.
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.
YUMA, Ariz. – Nestor Alaniz didn’t get a permit to build a well in his mother’s backyard, and he didn’t get it inspected. In fact, he didn’t even know how to dig a well. He learned by watching tutorials on YouTube while his brother, a construction worker, helped him drill the 25-foot-deep hole. They built the well after the old one dried up for the fourth time.
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.
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.
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.
How millions in campaign contributions help block laws to crack down on lending abuses
After years of financial ups and downs, Gloria Whitaker needed some quick cash to help keep a roof over her head. So she and her son, Devon, went to a TitleBucks store in Las Vegas and took out a $2,000 loan, pledging his gold 2002 Ford F-150 truck as collateral. Whitaker, 66, said nobody verified she, or her jobless son, could repay the loan, which carried interest of 121.545 percent. When she paid off the loan, she said, the company didn’t give back the title to the truck. Instead, employees talked her into borrowing $2,000 more, which plunged the family deeper into debt, she said. Whitaker knows that was a mistake, but also feels misled by aggressive — and legally dubious — lending tactics.
In 2010 Dianna Duran ran for secretary of state as a reform candidate who would clean things up in the wake of scandals that had plagued the office’s two previous occupants. As a county clerk in rural Otero County and later a state senator, Duran had earned a reputation for cool-headed competence. She was endorsed by most of the state’s newspapers and even the left-leaning editorial board at The Santa Fe New Mexican gave her a thumbs up, citing a “solid record of integrity.” When she won, Duran became the first Republican to hold the secretary of state’s office in 80 years. That was then. In late October, just a year into her second term, Duran, the state official in charge of overseeing elections, campaign finance and ethics, resigned and pleaded guilty to felony embezzlement charges related to personal use of campaign funds.