Major persistent safety concerns forced the only lab that produces and tests nuclear weapon cores for the U.S. military to close for approximately four years, an investigation revealed Tuesday.
Los Alamos National Laboratory was closed in mid-2013 after safety experts advised the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) that the facility faced serious risks of fatal, uncontrolled chain reactions involving plutonium, The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) reported.
The World War II-era lab is the only one in the nation where aging nuclear weapons cores are tested and new cores are produced. Los Alamos has not produced a new plutonium core for nuclear warheads since 2011 and has struggled to correct the litany of safety concerns. (RELATED: Lax Feds Make America’s Nuclear Arsenal Vulnerable To Cyber Attacks)
A 2015 report, for example, identified 60 unresolved safety risks, which had been identified for months or years.
Former NNSA Director Neile Miller detailed a joke as a way of explaining Los Alamos’ persistent safety problems. The premise is that America’s three nuclear weapons labs would respond differently to an order to study how to jump.
The punchline had Los Alamos officials saying “**ck you, we’re not jumping,” Miller told CPI.
A major problem is the lab’s inability to hire enough safety engineers, who must receive extensive training and must possess highly-specific skills. The job, which involves preventing lethal plutonium accidents, also carries high stress. (RELATED: Report: US Nuke Factories Are Vulnerable To Terrorists)
A February report determined that Los Alamos needed 27 safety engineers, but the lab only has 10.
Another safety concern stems from the lab’s emphasis of production over safety. Workers, in fact, receive bonuses for meeting certain deadlines, CPI reported.
Problems persisted even after the lab resumed hazardous operations in 2016. Technicians, for example, cleaned a plutonium spill with a material barred by the Department of Energy because it can cause chemical reactions and fires upon contact with the radioactive substances.
CPI could not determine how much the shutdown has cost taxpayers, though Los Alamos estimated in 2013 that lost productivity cost more than $1 million each day.
The hold on testing aging nuclear cores also endangers Americans, since that means the government has not been able to analyze how well or poorly warhead cores have aged. It’s unclear how disruptive the halt has been, though Los Alamos had to cancel planned tests for 29 plutonium cores over the past four years.
The situation at Los Alamos was a “mess,” former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz told CPI. Moniz had visited the lab to emphasize that restarting its work was “a very high priority,” he said.
Richard Garwin, a retired IBM physicist and long-time government nuclear weapons advisor, added, “How could they screw up so badly? We’re not getting our money’s worth out of the people at Los Alamos.”
He called the situation “extremely embarrassing.”
CPI also discovered safety risks and unpublicized accidents at other nuclear weapons-related facilities, which resulted in relatively light penalties.
CPI’s report was the second of a five-part series.
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