Nu­clear lab shut­down takes toll on U.S. ar­se­nal

Safety lapses at Los Alamos un­der­mine new war­head work


An ex­tended shut­down of the na­tion’s only sci­en­tific lab­o­ra­tory for pro­duc­ing and test­ing the plu­to­nium cores for its nu­clear weapons has taken a toll on Amer­ica’s ar­se­nal, with key work post­poned and de­lays loom­ing in the pro­duc­tion of com­po­nents for new nu­clear war­heads, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments and of­fi­cials.

The unique re­search and pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity is lo­cated at Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory (LANL) in New Mex­ico, the birth­place of the U.S. atomic ar­se­nal. The lab’s direc­tor or­dered the shut­down in 2013 af­ter the Wash­ing­ton of­fi­cial in charge of Amer­ica’s war­head pro­duc­tion ex­pressed wor­ries that the fa­cil­ity was ill-equipped to pre­vent an ac­ci­dent that would kill its work­ers and po­ten­tially oth­ers nearby.

Parts of the fa­cil­ity be­gan re­newed op­er­a­tions last year, but with only par­tial suc­cess. And work­ers there last year were still vi­o­lat­ing safety rules for han­dling plu­to­nium, the un­sta­ble man­made metal that serves as the spark­plug of the ther­monu­clear ex­plo­sions that Amer­i­can bombs

are de­signed to cre­ate.

Los Alamos’s per­sis­tent short­com­ings in plu­to­nium safety have been cited in more than 40 re­ports by gov­ern­ment over­sight agen­cies, teams of nu­clear safety ex­perts and the lab’s own em­ploy­ees over the past 11 years. Some of these re­ports say that safety takes a back seat to meet­ing spe­cific goals for nu­clear war­head main­te­nance and pro­duc­tion by pri­vate con­trac­tors run­ning the labs. Nu­clear work­ers and ex­perts say the con­trac­tors have been chas­ing lu­cra­tive gov­ern­ment bonuses tied to those goals.

With key work at Los Alamos de­ferred be­cause of safety prob­lems, of­fi­cials and ex­perts say the United States risks fall­ing be­hind on an am­bi­tious $1 tril­lion update of its nu­clear ar­se­nal, which for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama sup­ported and Pres­i­dent Trump has said he wants to “greatly strengthen and ex­pand.”

Dur­ing the hia­tus, Los Alamos has had to forgo 29 planned tests of the safety and re­li­a­bil­ity of plu­to­nium cores in war­heads now de­ployed atop U.S. sub­ma­rine-launched and land-based mis­siles and in bombs car­ried by air­craft. The fa­cil­ity also hasn’t been able to make new plu­to­nium cores to re­place those reg­u­larly with­drawn from the nu­clear ar­se­nal for test­ing or to be fit into war­heads, which are be­ing mod­ern­ized for those mis­siles and bombers at a pro­jected cost of bil­lions of dol­lars.

“The lab­o­ra­tory shut down an im­por­tant fa­cil­ity do­ing im­por­tant work,” said James McCon­nell, the as­so­ciate ad­min­is­tra­tor for safety, in­fra­struc­ture and op­er­a­tions at the Na­tional Nu­clear Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion (NNSA), a semi­au­tonomous arm of the En­ergy Depart­ment, in a re­cent in­ter­view at the agency’s Wash­ing­ton head­quar­ters. “What we didn’t have was the qual­ity pro­gram that we want.”

Ernest Moniz, the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy physi­cist who served al­most four years as Obama’s en­ergy sec­re­tary, said in a sep­a­rate in­ter­view that “we were ob­vi­ously quite con­cerned about” the shut­down at Los Alamos. Moniz said he con­sid­ered the sit­u­a­tion there a “mess” and the test­ing in­ter­rup­tion “sig­nif­i­cant.”

“I don’t think it has, at this stage, in any way se­ri­ously com­pro­mised” the nu­clear ar­se­nal, Moniz said. But he added that it was still his con­vic­tion that “ob­vi­ously we’ve got to get back to that” work as soon as pos­si­ble. A mock plu­to­nium core was made at Los Alamos last year in a demon­stra­tion timed to co­in­cide with a visit by Ash­ton B. Carter, then sec­re­tary of de­fense.

At a pub­lic hear­ing in Santa Fe on June 7, McCon­nell said that while Los Alamos is mak­ing progress, it is still un­able to re­solve the safety is­sue that pro­voked its shut­down four years ago, namely an acute short­age of en­gi­neers who are trained in keep­ing the plu­to­nium at the fa­cil­ity from be­com­ing “crit­i­cal” and fis­sion­ing un­con­trol­lably. “They’re not where we need them yet,” he said of the lab and its man­agers.

A Fe­bru­ary report by the De­fense Nu­clear Fa­cil­i­ties Safety Board, an in­de­pen­dent safety ad­vi­sory group char­tered by Congress, de­tailed the mag­ni­tude of the gap. It said Los Alamos needs 27 fully qual­i­fied safety en­gi­neers spe­cial­ized in keep­ing the plu­to­nium from fis­sion­ing out of con­trol. The lab has 10.

Some of the re­ports ob­tained by the Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­tegrity de­scribed flimsy work­place safety poli­cies that left work­ers ig­no­rant of proper pro­ce­dures as well as in­ci­dents where plu­to­nium was packed hun­dreds of times into dan­ger­ously close quar­ters or with­out the shield­ing needed to block a se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent. The safety risks at the Los Alamos plu­to­nium fa­cil­ity, which is known as PF-4, were alarm­ingly high­lighted in Au­gust 2011, when a “criticality ac­ci­dent,” as it’s known, was nar­rowly averted, one of sev­eral fac­tors prompt­ing many safety of­fi­cials there to quit.

A criticality ac­ci­dent is an un­con­trolled chain re­ac­tion in­volv­ing a fis­sion­able ma­te­rial such as plu­to­nium that re­leases en­ergy and gen­er­ates a deadly burst of ra­di­a­tion. Its pre­ven­tion has been an im­por­tant chal­lenge for the nu­clear weapons pro­gram since the 1940s. Criticality ac­ci­dents have oc­curred 60 times at var­i­ous nu­clear sites in the last half­cen­tury, caus­ing a to­tal of 21 ag­o­niz­ing deaths.

Three work­ers at Los Alamos died in pre­ventable criticality ac­ci­dents in the 1940s and 1950s. The most re­cent criticality-re­lated deaths else­where oc­curred in 1999 at a fac­tory north of Tokyo, where Ja­panese tech­ni­cians ac­ci­den­tally mixed too much highly en­riched ura­nium into some wide-mouth buck­ets. A burst of ra­di­a­tion — and its re­sult­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic blue glow — pro­voked school and road clo­sures and the evac­u­a­tion of those liv­ing nearby, plus a Ja­panese gov­ern­ment or­der for 310,000 oth­ers to shel­ter in place.

The prob­lems at Los Alamos were re­vealed by a year-long in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­tegrity, which also found sev­eral un­pub­li­cized ac­ci­dents at other pri­vately run U.S. nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which can be read in full at the Cen­ter for Pub­lic In­tegrity’s web­site, also showed that the penal­ties im­posed by the gov­ern­ment for these er­rors were typ­i­cally small, rel­a­tive to the tens of mil­lions of dol­lars the NNSA gives to each of the con­trac­tors an­nu­ally in pure profit. Some con­trac­tors in­volved in re­peated work­place safety in­ci­dents were also awarded con­tract ex­ten­sions and re­newals by of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton.

Asked about the Los Alamos fa­cil­ity’s record, NNSA spokesman Gregory Wolf re­sponded that “we ex­pect our con­trac­tors to per­form work in a safe and se­cure man­ner that pro­tects our em­ploy­ees, our fa­cil­i­ties, and the pub­lic. When ac­ci­dents do oc­cur, our fo­cus is to de­ter­mine causes, iden­tify cor­rec­tive ac­tions and pre­vent re­cur­rences.”

Kevin Roark, the spokesman for the con­sor­tium of firms hired by the gov­ern­ment to run the lab, said in an email that he would de­fer to the NNSA’s re­sponse. Charles McMil­lan, the Los Alamos lab’s direc­tor since 2011, who re­ceives gov­ern­ment-funded com­pen­sa­tion ex­ceed­ing $1 mil­lion a year, de­clined to be in­ter­viewed about its safety records or the na­tional se­cu­rity con­se­quences of the shut­down. But he said in a 2015 pro­mo­tional video that “the only way” the lab can ac­com­plish its vi­tal na­tional se­cu­rity mis­sion “is by do­ing it safely.”

Tar­get of crit­i­cism

Los Alamos’s han­dling of plu­to­nium was the tar­get of in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal crit­i­cism a decade ago, around the time of its takeover by three profit-mak­ing firms — Bech­tel Na­tional Inc., URS (now AECOM) and BWXT Gov­ern­ment Group Inc. — in an al­liance with the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia. “We couldn’t prove we were safe,” said Dou­glas Bowen, a nu­clear en­gi­neer on the lab­o­ra­tory’s criticality safety staff at the time, “not even close.”

In Septem­ber 2007, the fa­cil­ity in ques­tion — tech­ni­cally known as PF-4 for Plu­to­nium Fa­cil­ity Four and lo­cated in a highly se­cure part of the Los Alamos cam­pus in the moun­tains above Santa Fe — was shut for a month while man­agers con­ducted new train­ing and created an in­ter­nal safety board to fix its prob­lems. But in 2010, when the En­ergy Depart­ment did a checkup, it found “no of­fi­cial notes or records” the board had ever met, ac­cord­ing to a report at the time.

Alarms were sounded more loudly af­ter a nu­clear tech­ni­cian po­si­tioned eight plu­to­nium rods dan­ger­ously close to­gether in­side what is called a glove­box — a sealed con­tainer meant to con­tain the can­cer-caus­ing plu­to­nium par­ti­cles — on the af­ter­noon of Aug. 11, 2011, to take a pho­to­graph for se­nior man­agers. Do­ing so posed the risk that neu­trons emit­ted rou­tinely by the metal in the rods would col­lide with the atoms of other par­ti­cles, caus­ing them to fis­sion enough to pro­voke more col­li­sions and be­gin an un­con­trolled chain re­ac­tion of atom split­ting.

As luck had it, a su­per­vi­sor re­turned from her lunch break and no­ticed the dan­ger­ous con­fig­u­ra­tion. But she then or­dered the tech­ni­cian to reach into the box and move the rods apart, and a more se­nior lab of­fi­cial or­dered oth­ers present to keep work­ing. Both de­ci­sions in­creased, rather than di­min­ished, the like­li­hood of an ac­ci­dent, be­cause bod­ies — and even hands — con­tain wa­ter that can re­flect and slow the neu­trons, in­creas­ing the like­li­hood of a criticality and its re­sult­ing ra­di­a­tion burst.

“The weird thing about criticality safety is it’s not in­tu­itive,” Don Ni­chols, a for­mer chief for de­fense nu­clear safety at NNSA, said in an in­ter­view. The cal­cu­la­tions in­volved in avoid­ing criticality — which take ac­count of the shape, size, form, quan­tity and geo­met­ric con­fig­u­ra­tion of the plu­to­nium as it moves through more than a dozen messy in­dus­trial pro­cesses — are so com­plex that it takes 18 months of train­ing for an en­gi­neer to be­come qual­i­fied and as many as five years to be­come pro­fi­cient.

That’s why the con­se­quences of the 2011 in­ci­dent were so se­vere, even though a criticality did not oc­cur. Vir­tu­ally all the criticality spe­cial­ists re­spon­si­ble for help­ing to keep work­ers safe at Los Alamos de­cided to quit, hav­ing be­come frus­trated by the sloppy work demon­strated in the in­ci­dent and what they con­sid­ered the lab man­age­ment’s cal­lous-

ness about nu­clear risks when higher prof­its were at stake, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views and gov­ern­ment re­ports.

Bowen re­called fre­quently hear­ing an of­fi­cial with one of the pri­vate con­trac­tors run­ning PF-4 say that “we don’t even need a criticality-safety pro­gram” and that the work was cost­ing the con­trac­tor too much money. For­mer NNSA of­fi­cial Ni­chols con­firmed the ex­o­dus of trained ex­perts, say­ing that be­cause of “some mis­man­age­ment, peo­ple voted with their feet. They left.” The at­tri­tion rate was around 100 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a “lesson­slearned” report com­pleted last month by the lab’s cur­rent criticality safety chief and the lone NNSA ex­pert as­signed to that is­sue in the agency’s Los Alamos over­sight of­fice.

The ex­o­dus and shut­down

The lab’s in­abil­ity to fend off a deadly ac­ci­dent even­tu­ally be­came ap­par­ent to Wash­ing­ton.

Four NNSA staff mem­bers briefed Neile Miller, the agency’s act­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor in 2013, in an an­te­room of her of­fice over­look­ing the Mall that year, Miller re­called. The pre­cise risks did not need an explanation, she said. She said that criticality is “one of those trig­ger words” that should im­me­di­ately get the at­ten­tion of any­one re­spon­si­ble for pre­vent­ing a nu­clear weapons dis­as­ter.

With two of the four ex­perts re­main­ing in her of­fice, Miller picked up the phone that day and called McMil­lan at the Los Alamos com­plex, which is fi­nanced by a fed­eral pay­ment ex­ceed­ing $2 bil­lion a year. She rec­om­mended that the key plu­to­nium lab in­side PF-4 be shut down, im­me­di­ately, while the safety de­fi­cien­cies were fixed.

McMil­lan re­sponded that he had be­lieved the prob­lems could be solved while that lab kept op­er­at­ing, Miller said. He was “re­luc­tant” to shut it down, she re­called. But as the tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion pro­ceeded, he be­came open to her view that the risks were too high, she added. So on McMil­lan’s or­der, the lab was shut within a day, with lit­tle pub­lic no­tice.

The ex­act cost to tax­pay­ers of idling the fa­cil­ity is un­clear, but an in­ter­nal Los Alamos report es­ti­mated in 2013 that shut­ting down the fa­cil­ity where such work is con­ducted costs the gov­ern­ment as much as $1.36 mil­lion a day in lost pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Ini­tially, McMil­lan promised the staff that a “pause” last­ing less than a year wouldn’t cause “any sig­nif­i­cant im­pact to mis­sion de­liv­er­ables.” But at the end of 2013, a new group of safety ex­perts com­mis­sioned by the lab de­clared in an in­ter­nal report that “man­age­ment has not yet fully em­braced its com­mit­ment to criticality safety.” It listed nine weak­nesses in the lab’s safety cul­ture that were rooted in a “pro­duc­tion fo­cus” to meet dead­lines. Work­ers say these dead­lines are typ­i­cally linked to man­agers’ fi­nan­cial bonuses.

Los Alamos’s lead­ers, the report said, had made the right prom­ises, but failed to al­ter the un­der­ly­ing safety cul­ture. “The fo­cus ap­pears to re­main short­term and com­pli­ance-ori­ented rather than based on a strate­gic plan,” it said.

Short­falls per­sisted in 2015, and new ones were dis­cov­ered while the fa­cil­ity, still mostly shut down, was used for test runs. On May 6, 2015, for ex­am­ple, the NNSA sent Los Alamos’s man­ag­ing con­trac­tors a let­ter again crit­i­ciz­ing the lab for be­ing slow to fix criticality risks. The De­fense Nu­clear Fa­cil­i­ties Safety Board said the let­ter cited “more than 60 un­re­solved in­frac­tions,” many present for months “or even years.”

In Jan­uary and again in April 2015, work­ers dis­cov­ered tubes of liq­uids con­tain­ing plu­to­nium in sel­dom-used rooms at PF-4, with la­bels that made it hard to know how much plu­to­nium the tubes held or where they’d come from, the safety board said. In May, work­ers packed a drum of nu­clear waste with too much plu­to­nium, pos­ing a criticality risk, and in the en­su­ing probe, it be­came clear that they were re­ly­ing on in­ac­cu­rate and con­fus­ing Safety ex­perts had mis­cal­cu­lated how much plu­to­nium the drum could safely hold.

“These is­sues are very sim­i­lar to the is­sues that contributed to the LANL Direc­tor’s de­ci­sion to pause op­er­a­tions in June of 2013,” safety board in­spec­tors wrote.

New trou­bles

In 2016, for the third straight year, the En­ergy Depart­ment and the De­fense Nu­clear Fa­cil­i­ties Safety Board each listed criticality safety at Los Alamos as one of the most press­ing prob­lems fac­ing the nu­clear weapons pro­gram, in their an­nual re­ports to Congress. “Re­quired im­prove­ments to the Criticality Safety pro­gram are mov­ing at an un­ac­cept­ably slow pace,” the most re­cent NNSA per­for­mance eval­u­a­tion of Los Alamos, re­leased in Novem­ber 2016, said.

Haz­ardous op­er­a­tions at PF-4 slowly started to re­sume in 2016, but prob­lems con­tin­ued. In June, af­ter tech­ni­cians work­ing in a glove­box spilled about 7 ta­ble­spoons of a liq­uid con­tain­ing plu­to­nium, work­ers vi­o­lated safety rules by sop­ping up the spill with or­ganic cheese­cloth and throw­ing it in waste bins with other nu­clear ma­te­ri­als, pos­ing the risk of a chem­i­cal re­ac­tion and fire, ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­nal Los Alamos report. A sim­i­lar chem­i­cal re­ac­tion stem­ming from the sloppy dis­posal of Los Alamos’s nu­clear waste in 2014 pro­voked the shut­down of a deep­un­der­ground stor­age site in New Mex­ico for the waste for more than two years, a Depart­ment of En­ergy ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­cluded. That in­ci­dent cost the gov­ern­ment more than a bil­lion dol­lars in cleanup and other ex­penses

Frank G. Klotz, the NNSA direc­tor, has tried to be up­beat. In March, he told hun­dreds of nu­clear con­trac­tors packed into a Wash­ing­ton ho­tel ball­room for an in­dus­try gath­er­ing that PF-4 was fully back in busi­ness, hav­ing “safely re­sumed all plu­to­nium ac­tiv­i­ties there af­ter a three-year pause.”

Klotz said the up­dated nu­clear weapons would be de­liv­ered “on time and on bud­get.”

But a sub­se­quent anal­y­sis by the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice clashed with Klotz’s de­scrip­tion. In an April report on costs as­so­ci­ated with the NNSA’s on­go­ing weapons mod­ern­iza­tion, the GAO dis­closed the ex­is­tence of an in­ter­nal NNSA report fore­cast­ing that PF-4 will be un­able to meet the plu­to­nium-pit pro­duc­tion dead­lines.

More­over, late last year when Los Alamos con­ducted its first sched­uled in­va­sive test of a plu­to­nium pit since the shut­down of PF-4 more than three years ago, it did not pro­duce the needed re­doc­u­men­ta­tion. sults, ac­cord­ing to NNSA’s an­nual eval­u­a­tion of Los Alamos’s per­for­mance last year. The test in­volved the core of a re­fur­bished war­head sched­uled to be de­liv­ered to the Navy by the end of 2019 for use atop the Tri­dent mis­siles car­ried by U.S. sub­marines. A sec­ond at­tempt in­volv­ing a dif­fer­ent war­head was can­celed be­cause the safety anal­y­sis was in­com­plete, NNSA’s eval­u­a­tion said.

The pur­pose of such stock­pile surveil­lance tests, as then-Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den said in a 2010 Na­tional De­fense Univer­sity speech, is to “an­tic­i­pate po­ten­tial prob­lems and re­duce their im­pact on our ar­se­nal.” Weapons de­sign­ers say these tests are akin to what car own­ers would do if they were stor­ing a ve­hi­cle for years while still ex­pect­ing the en­gine to start and the ve­hi­cle to speed down the road at the sud­den turn of a key.

At the pub­lic hear­ing in Santa Fe on June 7, NNSA’s McCon­nell said the agency is study­ing whether to keep plu­to­nium-pit op­er­a­tions at Los Alamos. Op­tions be­ing con­sid­ered in­clude up­grad­ing the fa­cil­i­ties there or “adding ca­pa­bil­i­ties or lever­ag­ing ex­ist­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties else­where in the coun­try, at other sites where plu­to­nium is al­ready present or has been used.”

Ac­tive NNSA sites that fit that de­scrip­tion in­clude the Sa­van­nah River Site in South Carolina, the Pan­tex plant in Texas and the Ne­vada Na­tional Se­cu­rity Site. The NNSA ex­pects to com­plete its anal­y­sis by late sum­mer.



TOP: An aerial view of the Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory Plu­to­nium Fa­cil­ity Four. Safety risks there were alarm­ingly high­lighted in 2011 when a “criticality ac­ci­dent” was nar­rowly averted. ABOVE: Ash­ton B. Carter, then sec­re­tary of de­fense, tours PF-4 in 2016. Ernest Moniz, Pres­i­dent Obama’s en­ergy chief, said of­fi­cials were con­cerned about the shut­down. He called the sit­u­a­tion a “mess” and the test­ing in­ter­rup­tion “sig­nif­i­cant.”


The build­ing north of Tokyo where a 1999 nu­clear “criticality ac­ci­dent” caused deaths. A burst of ra­di­a­tion — and its re­sult­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic blue glow — pro­voked school and road clo­sures and the evac­u­a­tion of those liv­ing nearby, plus a Ja­panese gov­ern­ment or­der for 310,000 oth­ers to shel­ter in place.

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