Nuclear Near-misses

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THE PLANK JANUARY 5, 2007

Nuclear Near-misses

I must've missed it when it came out, but this story is more a little unsettling. Last month, The Project on Government Oversight charged that a nuclear warhead almost exploded in 2005 while it was being dismantled at the government's Pantex facility near Amarillo, Texas:

The Project on Government Oversight says it has been told by knowledgeable experts that the warhead nearly detonated in 2005 because an unsafe amount of pressure was applied while it was being disassembled ...

An investigator for Project on Government Oversight says the weapon involved was a W-56 warhead with 100 times the destructive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The plant itself, which is managed by private contractor BWX Technologies and used to decommission nuclear weapons, was fined $110,000 for violating safety procedures during disassembly, and "is now being investigated by the Department of Energy for a number of other alleged safety problems."

The Los Angeles Times followed up with more: Employees characterized conditions at the plant as "degraded," and a letter to the president of BWXT complained that engineers required to work up to 84 hours a week, and production technicians 72 hours a week. According to the Times, the letter also stated that "some managers lacked specific experience in handling nuclear weapons." But BWXT denied the allegations and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman expressed "confidence that Pantex will continue its outstanding work." No need for alarm!

In other nuclear safety news, Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, has recently been dismissed "because of security breakdowns at the Los Alamos laboratory and other facilities." In June, Brooks was reprimanded for failing to report a security breach of computers in New Mexico that resulted in the theft of personal data for 1,500 workers. Last fall, "[d]uring a drug raid, authorities found classified nuclear-related documents at the home of a former lab employee with top security clearance." Exciting times in the nuclear safety and security world, no?

--Bradford Plumer

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