Light penalties and lax oversight encourage weak safety culture at nuclear weapons labs

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.

Safety problems at a Los Alamos laboratory delay U.S. nuclear warhead testing and production

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.

Air Force Secretary nominee helped a major defense contractor lobby for more federal funds

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.

Feds tight-lipped on weeding out corrupt border agents

In a video message intended for the tens of thousands of men and women working to keep drugs and people from illegally entering the United States, then-Deputy Border Patrol Chief Ron Colburn wanted to leave little doubt about the consequences for those who betrayed their mission. “The light of justice will ultimately drive you from the shadows,” Colburn said in the 2009 message, one of many produced by the agency to combat corruption in its ranks. “You will find no safe haven among fellow criminals. You will be identified. You will be arrested.