As dangerous as nuclear weapons are, you’d think the management running them would prioritise safety. This is not the case at all.
In this undated photo provided by Sandia National Laboratories, researcher Leonard Martinez makes an adjustment at the Lightning Simulator lab in Albuquerque, N.M. Researchers are using the simulator to test their knowledge of lightning protection systems by looking at how lightning currents flow through rebar lattice structures. (Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories via AP)
In an extensive report by the Center for Public Integrity, the investigative journalism outlet found that America’s eight nuclear weapons labs and plants and two sites that offer them support are rife with safety problems, but the corporations that run them face minimal penalties when accidents occur. During the year-long investigation, the publication found that the Department of Energy waived 19 of the 21 major penalties officials said were tied to workplace misconduct and safety lapses.
In total, companies were spared $US3.3 million of the $US7.3 million they were fined.
Here’s an example of the risks: In 2011, a worker at Sandia National Laboratories incorrectly turned a valve that unleashed an explosion that could have killed him another co-worker. The nuclear weapons lab, this subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, had two more incidents during the three years the Department of Energy investigated the 2011 explosion. All were tied to poor safety protocols.
When it was time for regulators to fine Sandia $US412,500 ($543,862), the Energy Department decided to waive it because the company had made made “significant and positive steps… to improve Sandia’s safety culture.”
And make no mistake about it — these private firms make major coin running these labs. On the low end, they pull in $US40,000 ($52,738) a day in profits; on the high end, they rake in $US160,000 ($210,953) per day. Over the past 10 years, they have made a total of more than $US2 ($3) billion.
Here are some of the more troubling findings from the report:
• When the Energy Department penalised a contractor that shut down the nation’s underground nuclear waste dump in 2014 after an accident that exposed 21 people to radioactive carcinogens, it amounted to a tiny share of the government’s repair costs.
Los Alamos National Laboratory, operated by a consortium of four contractors called Los Alamos National Security LLC, was fined $US57 ($75) million. The government’s cleanup bill? Around $US1.5 ($2) billion.
• One reason fines are reduced is that federal rules governing Energy Department contractors do not allow the contractors to be fined if their profits were docked for the same infraction.
The department argues that this arrangement is still effective. But a review of payments to 10 contractors over a decade shows they earned on average 86% of their maximum potential profits, even though that decade was marked with persistent safety lapses.
• The frequency of serious accidents and incidents at these facilities has not diminished — as it has at most other industrial workplaces in America — and may have risen significantly.
The number of violation notices, letters, and consent orders sent to contractors after accidents and mishaps has more than doubled since 2013.
• Many contractors penalised for malfeasance later committed new safety infractions, federal records show. Some workplace safety experts suggest contractors are building fines and penalties into their business plans.
An earlier report from the Center for Public Integrity on nuclear lab safety reported that the Los Alamos National Laboratory had its own issues with safety. Safety became such a concern at one point that the lab was shut down in 2013 because of fears it was not prepared to prevent an accident that could kill all of its workers and even people nearby.
Moreover, a February report by the Defence Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, said the lab “needs 27 fully qualified safety engineers specialised in keeping the plutonium from fissioning out of control.”
It has 10.
Much of the national conversation around nuclear weapons safety revolves around keeping them secure from terrorists, or non-proliferation treaties designed to keep nuclear powers from using them at all. What has become clear is that the corporations hired to run the nation’s nuclear weapons labs can’t even keep them safe for civilian employees to work.
Americans have been fearing a nuclear attack from Russia or North Korea for all of these years, but it seems like the most dangerous nuclear explosion is more likely to come from a poorly run lab in New Mexico than a purposeful directed attack from Pyongyang.