The Dangerous Work Of Babysitting Bombs

17:11 minutes

Los Alamos National Laboratory. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory

The U.S. currently has more than 4,000 nuclear warheads in its arsenal. And while it’s unlikely that we’ll need to use those bombs any time soon, they must still be checked and maintained regularly, just in case. That job is done at facilities like Los Alamos National Laboratory, where technicians handle the radioactive plutonium “pits” that serve as fuel for these bomb.

[What is the state of nuclear power around the world?]

In August 2011, technicians at Los Alamos National Laboratory gathered eight plutonium rods and positioned them side-by-side on a table for a photograph. In doing so, they overlooked the fact that unstable radioactive plutonium can spark a nuclear chain reaction when too much is put in one place. The rods were separated before a burst of radiation could be triggered, but the incident represented gross negligence at one of the country’s most dangerous weapons facilities.  

A subsequent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity revealed that several critical safety incidents have halted work at Los Alamos and put scientists and researchers in contact with radioactive materials. And penalties imposed by the government on the private contractors that make America’s nuclear weapons have done little to reduce the rate of these safety breaches.

Jeffrey Smith, managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity, joins Ira to discuss what the Center’s investigation uncovered. Plus, David Overskei, a private contractor who has consulted with the government on nuclear weapons, offers his take on how the U.S. can safely maintain its stockpile.

We invited Los Alamos National Laboratory to appear on the program. They declined and instead sent the following statements in response to the Center’s investigation:

With regard to the story playing up the risk that the “rods” could have gone critical, which included a photo (and continues to be a point that keeps being pushed in appearances and videos), “It is simply not true. In fact, the conditions did not exist to support a critical chain reaction. Factors such as amount and shape, among others, made that a virtual impossibility.”

With regard to the assertion that the lab has an insufficient number of criticality safety experts at 10: “Not accurate. In fact, the current authorized level is actually 25 and that is being met on site with 20 full-time employees and 5 subcontractors—until 5 full-time employees are hired. In addition, the lab was recently authorized to raise staffing levels to 27 and have plans to do so.”

Segment Guests

Jeffrey Smith

Jeffrey Smith is Managing Editor for National Security at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

David Overskei

David Overskei is the President of Decision Factors Incorporated in San Diego, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The US hasn’t deployed a nuclear bomb since it dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the US arsenal of over 4,000 nuclear warheads still has to be maintained. In caring for those warheads, checking on them, replacing their parts, it’s dangerous work, because after all, this is radioactive material.

So you might assume that facilities like Los Alamos National Laboratory, where plutonium for the warheads is handled, would be extra cautious. But an investigation by the Center for Public integrity revealed several critical safety accidents that have crippled production at Los Alamos, and put scientists and researchers in contact with radioactive materials. We’re going to dig into that investigation and what they found with my guest, Jeffrey Smith, Managing Editor for the Center for Public Integrity. Welcome to Science Friday.

JEFFREY SMITH: Welcome, Ira. Thanks.

IRA FLATOW: So let’s talk about this. First, the US isn’t making any new weapons, so what kind of work is being done at Los Alamos?

JEFFREY SMITH: So Los Alamos does two things that nobody else does in the entire nuclear weapons complex, which includes about 10 facilities. They make pits, the cores of nuclear warheads, and they test them to make sure that they’re aging gracefully and not degrading in some way, while they’re deployed on weapons.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about the incident that started your investigation into the safety issues at Los Alamos.

JEFFREY SMITH: So in 2011, a couple of technicians, a photographer, decided to position some plutonium rods in a so-called glove box, on top of a glove box, which used to control some of the hazards. And they put them– eight rods of plutonium– closer together than they were supposed to.

IRA FLATOW: And what’s the danger in that?

JEFFREY SMITH: So the danger is that this is man-made material. It’s meant to be unstable. It was designed to be unstable. That’s where you get the explosive whack of a nuclear explosion. So in this case, if you put too much plutonium together, some of the neutrons that are emitted constantly by the plutonium could hit other atoms and cause those atoms to split, provoking other neutrons to fly off and hit other atoms. And it produces a nuclear chain reaction [INAUDIBLE].

IRA FLATOW: Uh-huh. And so there’s not– a bomb is not going to blow up?

JEFFREY SMITH: No. It’s not an explosion, but it’s a burst of radiation that, basically, can kill everybody in the room.

IRA FLATOW: We asked for a comment from them, and we’ve got a statement that said, with regard to the story, it’s simply not true– the rods, about going critical. In fact, the conditions did not exist to support a critical chain reaction. Factors such as amount and shape, among others, made that virtually impossible.

JEFFREY SMITH: So it’s interesting that they said that. I could just cite the Department of Energy’s account of this. They said the mass of the plutonium– this was a report in December, 2012– it said the mass of the plutonium in the new location had significantly exceeded the posted criticality safety limit. The government report also said that it was determined that no hazard existed only after the rods had been moved back into their original places. And at that point, the room was released for normal operations. So you have Los Alamos’ account of what happened, and then you have the accounts of others.

IRA FLATOW: So why did the lab, then, shut down, shortly after?

JEFFREY SMITH: So the account that we were given was that many of the people that worked there on criticality safety– this task of keeping plutonium from causing a nuclear chain reaction– many of those people left. They were disgruntled. They thought they were disrespected by the management. They thought that the safety concerns that they had expressed were not being taken seriously. And when this was noticed in Washington, an official in Washington that oversees this laboratory’s work called up and said, you need to shut this lab.

IRA FLATOW: Is there any issue with getting replacements for them? Younger people? I’m imagining these are more of the senior members, who decided to leave.

JEFFREY SMITH: Yeah. This is a difficult profession to be in. And we’ve been told by people who do this kind of work that it takes about five years to become proficient, on top of some training. And so it’s– when everybody left Los Alamos, they were down to one person.

IRA FLATOW: One person?

JEFFREY SMITH: In 2013, when it was shut. And they needed about 30.

IRA FLATOW: And so do you know now how many they might have?

JEFFREY SMITH: So this is an issue in contention. I mean, in February, an oversight group that works for Congress, or reports to Congress, said that they needed 27 fully-qualified criticality specialists. And they said that the laboratory has 10. Now, the laboratory has since said that it has more than 10, but I think that these are not certified, qualified. They haven’t been through all the professional training and certification process that would allow them to do this work.

IRA FLATOW: In fact, Los Alamos, when we asked them, although they declined to come on the program, they did send us a few statements. And they said, in fact, the current authorized level is actually 25, and that is being met on-site with 20 full-time employees and five subcontractors.

JEFFREY SMITH: Yeah. The issue is whether these are certified and qualified employees, and that in June, the Associate Administrator for Safety at the National Nuclear Security Administration said, at a public event in Santa Fe, that the lab had not met their requirement. His exact wording were, “They’re not where we need them to be.”

IRA FLATOW: OK. It seems like some of the safety lapses were in response to production demands from the federal government. What kind of expectations does the DOE place on Los Alamos?

JEFFREY SMITH: So it’s not just Los Alamos. We found this to be a recurrent problem across the nuclear weapons complex– that in many cases, the reports that the government did on safety lapses cited the overarching danger of too much emphasis on production. And in this case, it would have been a requirement that they test a certain number of these plutonium parts for nuclear warheads under a deadline, or that they produce new ones.

Congress has imposed a deadline that says that you have to, by– Within the next 10 years, you have to be prepared to start making between 30 and 80 plutonium pits per year. It’s a messy, complex process, and they haven’t been doing it.

IRA FLATOW: So is your research showing that the government is sort of covering up the safety problems at these labs?

JEFFREY SMITH: Well, it’s not our conclusion to draw, but the people that we spoke to said that they were frustrated that the government had not been more transparent about these problems.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I’m thinking, and I go– I’m old enough to remember this. I’m thinking of the Karen Silkwood incident, back in the 1970s. You know, where she was killed in a car accident on her way to meeting with a reporter for the New York Times.

JEFFREY SMITH: Well, there’s no hint of anything like that here, but the truth is that the nuclear weapons laboratories are used to operating under a shroud of secrecy that’s not so easy to pierce. It was with the skill of my great reporters, Patrick Malone and Peter Carey, that we were able to get to the bottom of this.

IRA FLATOW: Getting back to those pits, why do they need to make them if no one’s using them?

JEFFREY SMITH: So the pits are– new pits are needed if they want to develop a new warhead.


JEFFREY SMITH: And they also have a lot of pits that are in the field, and they want to make sure that they’re not misbehaving in some way. These are unstable materials that the pits are made of and that they’re surrounded by. And they don’t want to be surprised. They want to make sure that these bombs can work.

Somebody compared it to what you would do to test a car if you stored it for decades. You’d want to be sure that when you turned the key and had to drive down the road suddenly, that it would still work.

IRA FLATOW: So we have these nuclear warheads, but we can’t test them to know if they’re working, right now?

JEFFREY SMITH: Yes. So this testing that was done in this laboratory that’s been shuttered is meant to replace the underground nuclear testing, which was stopped. So it’s a more passive type of test, and they do a lot of other related testing– computer simulation work and other analysis– that supports this. But it’s all meant to take the place of underground testing.

IRA FLATOW: Is this a unique event to Los Alamos? Or what about the other sites, like Sandia?

JEFFREY SMITH: So we studied 60 safety lapses over the last decade, at 10 different facilities. And we found that the safety incident rate was not declining as it is at, basically, heavy industrial workplaces across America. And it may be increasing in some– the numbers were rising a lot in 2013. In 2015, 2016, they were a lot higher than they were in 2013.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the government partners with private companies in all of these facilities?

JEFFREY SMITH: Yeah, so this is the key fact. You’d think that these are nuclear weapons, they must be made by the government for the government’s use. But in fact, the laboratories are government-owned, but managed by private contractors. All their expenses are paid by the government, and then they make a profit on top of that.

IRA FLATOW: So what kind of penalties can the government give them if they’re–

JEFFREY SMITH: So the government can remove their access to the management contract. They can get a new contractor to do it. But they rarely do that. The average tenure of a contractor in the Department of Energy is 17 years, so it’s not a trigger they pull very often. And they can also ding them with safety fines, but we found that the overwhelming number of safety fines in the last decade has been– in each case they proposed a fine and then reduced it.

IRA FLATOW: I want to bring on another guest, David Overskei, who’s president of Decision Factors, Incorporated, which is a private contractor providing consultation to the government on nuclear weapons. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: You’ve read this CPI series that we’re talking about, and more importantly, you’ve worked at nuclear weapons labs as a private contractor. Were you surprised by the safety incidents this investigation uncovered?

DAVID OVERSKEI: Partially. There are incidences that occur, but I think some of the tone of the reporting implies that there is lack of will and intent on the part of the employees to operate safely. And my experience has been, that’s not really the case.

IRA FLATOW: All right. And from your experience in the private sector, is there a better way to respond to safety accidents and incidents involving radioactive materials, or avoid them altogether?

DAVID OVERSKEI: Yes. Yes. There is a much better way. I have been, for a number of years, advocating that a significant part of the problem– and a part of the cost that the Department of Energy and NNSA, in particular, is incurring– is owed to the self-regulation that the DOE have. And if the Department of Energy would allow outside parties– meaning OSHA and EPA and the NRC– to come in and regulate the actions that the Department cites, they would be better served, and the employees would be better served as well.

IRA FLATOW: And is there any lab, in your experience, in the private sector, that’s doing this well?

DAVID OVERSKEI: There is an organization, not in the US. It’s the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the UK, and it provides the same services to the UK government that the eight sites and the NNSA provide to the US. And that is completely regulated by the public entity in the UK.

IRA FLATOW: Jeff Smith, your reaction?

JEFFREY SMITH: So it is unusual that when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act was written into law, only two government institutions were exempted from its jurisdiction– the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy. So they have been self-regulating, and it raises questions about whether they get enough of an independent voice into the process.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. In case you just joined us, we’re talking about weapons research at Los Alamos and other laboratories, and how dangerous that could be. David, is there any way for these national labs to get back on track?

DAVID OVERSKEI: Yes. I think one of the– well, let me make one other comment here to clarify something that has been said, and it’s alluded to the fact that people feel that the problem is the commercial contractors that are operating the laboratories, and that really isn’t necessarily the case. The management of the laboratories may have some individuals that come from the commercial sector, but a number of the people– including senior members of the laboratory in Los Alamos as an example of one, and also the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory– those individuals have worked in these laboratories, or sister laboratories, their entire professional career.

So the management companies that come in are supposed to bring some oversight, and also management skills, that make the laboratories operate better. But it’s not like these people are coming in from commercial industry and then running the lab. In fact, maybe the lab would be better if there were more commercial people installed in the management locations at these places.

IRA FLATOW: Is that your recommendation for how to get this back on track?

DAVID OVERSKEI: Well, that’s one of them. So I would encourage more of the industrial people to be actually within the organization, not just at the upper management level, but propagated throughout the delivery part of the organization. So that would be one thing.

The second thing is– and this, I think, is more relevant– the Department of Energy, even if they’re going to be self-regulated, they should have an organization like we’re talking about, these criticality specialists. They should be criticality specialists, not just at Los Alamos, but a group that provides that service for Livermore, Los Alamos, the Nevada test site, Sandia Y-12, Pantex, across the entire complex. That is the way that you keep expertise within the entire organization and make it available uniformly to every single operating entity, so that you apply the same rules and procedures at all locations. And that is currently not the situation at these DOE sites.

IRA FLATOW: All right let me– We’re getting out of time, so I want to ask Jeff for a comment.

JEFFREY SMITH: So two points, quickly. One is that Charlie McMillan, who runs the Los Alamos Laboratory and has presided over this period in which Los Alamos has been cited repeatedly for safety lapses, is a nuclear physicist and weapons designer, but he is also an officer in the corporation that runs Los Alamos. His salary– we don’t know exactly what portion of his compensation is salary and what portion is other forms of remuneration, but it’s over a million dollars a year.


JEFFREY SMITH: So the idea is that– the critics of this setup say that his incentives can be more financial than scientific.

IRA FLATOW: All right, we’re going to leave it there, and I thank both of you for taking time to be with us today. Jeff Smith, Managing Editor for the Center for Public Integrity, and David Overskei, who is the president of Decision Factors, Incorporated, a private contractor who provided consultations to the government on nuclear weapons. And you can check out the five-article series from the Center for Public Integrity at sciencefriday.com/safety.

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