A 2014 aerial view of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Plutonium Facility 4 where production setbacks occurred after a safety near miss. (Google)

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 man-made 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 due to 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 forego 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 The facility also hasn’t been able to make new plutonium cores to replace those regularly withdrawn from the nuclear arsenal for testing or to be fit into warheads, which are being modernized for those missiles and bombers at a projected cost of billions of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 President 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.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter tours the Los Alamos National Laboratory Plutonium Facility 4 in 2016. (Los Alamos National Laboratory)

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 half-century, 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 building in Japan where a 1999 criticality accident caused deaths and an evacuation. (Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

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.”

A near-calamity

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.

Rods of plutonium placed precariously close for the purpose of taking this 2011 photo. The error caused a multiyear production setback. ( NNSA)

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 callousness 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 “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 due to “some mismanagement, people voted with their feet. They left.” The attrition rate was around 100 percent, according to a “lessons-learned” 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.

Workers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory Plutonium Facility 4. (NNSA/Los Alamos)
The exodus provokes the 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 short-term 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 documentation. 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 Nov. 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 deep-underground 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 results, 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 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.

This article is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington.