Calculating exactly “how much material can come together before there’s an explosion” — as the Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman once put it — is a complex task. While visiting the production site for highly-enriched uranium in Oak Ridge, Tenn., during the 1940’s, for example, Feynman was surprised to see stocks of that fissionable material deliberately stored in separate rooms, but on an adjoining wall that posed no barrier to collisions involving atoms of uranium and escaping neutrons on both sides. “It was very dangerous and they had not paid any attention to the safety at all,” Feynman wrote years later.
Plutonium work is so fraught with risk that the total mass of that metal allowed to be present in PF-4 is strictly limited. A decade ago, the limit was increased without an appropriate understanding of the risks, according to an NNSA technical bulletin in February. But with pieces of it strewn and stored throughout the normally busy building, partly because the vault is typically full, its managers have labored for years to systematically track down and remove excess stocks. They had some success last year, when they got rid of nearly a quarter of the plutonium on the building’s “main floor,” according to recent budget documents.
Criticality specialists are employed not only to help set these overall mass limits but to guide technicians so they don’t inadvertently trigger chain reactions in their daily work; those specialists are also supposed to be the first-responders when too much dangerous material is found in one place.
“The weird thing about criticality safety is that it’s not intuitive,” Don Nichols, a former chief for defense nuclear safety at the NNSA, said in an interview. He cited an instance in which someone operating a stirring machine noticed that fissionable liquids were forming a “critical” mass, so the operator shut the stirrer off, not immediately realizing that doing so made the problem worse. In other instances, analysts had judged a plutonium operation was safe, but then more workers — whose bodies reflect and slow neutrons — wound up being present nearby, creating unanticipated risks.
Those doing the weapons disassemblies and invasive pit studies are typically under “a big level pressure” to complete a certain number every year, Nichols added. They are expected to do “so many of these in this amount of time,” to allow the labs to certify to the president that the stockpile is viable. Meanwhile, the calculations involved in avoiding criticality — which depend on the shape, size, form, quantity, and geometric configuration of material being used in more than a dozen different industrial operations — are so complex that it takes a year and a half of training for an engineer to become qualified and as many as five years to become proficient, experts say.
“It’s difficult to find people who want to do this job,” particularly at the remote Los Alamos site, said McConnell, the NNSA safety chief. With plutonium use mostly confined to creating the world’s most powerful explosives, “there are…very few public- sector opportunities for people to develop these skills,” he added. As a result, he said, many NNSA sites lack the desired number of experts, which slows down production.
At the time of the 2013 shutdown, after numerous internal warnings about the consequences of its mismanagement, Los Alamos had only “a single junior qualified criticality safety engineer” still in place, according to the February NNSA technical bulletin. Nichols, who was then the NNSA’s associate administrator for safety and health, said McMillan didn’t “realize how serious it was until we took notice and helped him take notice.”
Without having adequate staff on hand to guide their operations safely, technicians at PF-4 were unable to carry out a scheduled destructive surveillance in 2014 of a refurbished plutonium pit meant for a warhead to be fit atop American submarine-launched ballistic missiles. It’s been modernized at a cost of $946 million since 2014, with total expenses predicted to exceed $3.7 billion. Generally, up to 10 of the first pits produced for a new warhead type are set aside for surveillance to assure they’re safely constructed and potent before they’re deployed. But the planned disassembly was cancelled and the NNSA hasn’t scheduled another yet, because of the shutdown.
The lab also hasn’t been able to complete planned invasive studies of the aging of plutonium used in a warhead for an aircraft-delivered nuclear bomb, now being modernized at an estimated cost of $7.4 billion to $10 billion.
Former deputy NNSA director Madelyn Creedon told an industry conference in March that if new funds are given to the agency in President Trump’s new budget, she knows where she’d advise it be spent. “One of the things that doesn’t take a huge amount of money but it’s one that has been cut back over the last couple of years, is surveillance — enhanced surveillance” of existing warheads, Creedon said.
The shortcomings persist
Los Alamos’s progress in improving its criticality safety since the shutdown began has been fitful, and the dissonance between safety experts and its top managers has stubbornly persisted.
McMillan initially promised to train fissile material handlers to be more heedful of plutonium-handling perils, for example, and to bring the inventory and safety documents guiding their work up to date. In an email to lab employees, he promised 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 to guide its reforms, delivered bad news just as the lab was attempting to restart operations at PF-4. “Management has not yet fully embraced its commitment to criticality safety,” the group said, according to a copy of its report obtained by CPI.
It also listed nine weaknesses in the lab’s safety culture that were rooted in a “production focus” to meet work deadlines. Workers say these deadlines are typically linked to 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,” the report said.
In May 2014, Peter Winokur, who at the time chaired the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, weighed in with a separate, written warning to the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration. He said McMillan was improperly trying to restart “high-risk” PF-4 operations without first carefully setting new, written, safety benchmarks for the lab’s plutonium work.
The NNSA head, Klotz, alerted the Secretary of Energy, Moniz, and the two of them flew to Los Alamos to meet with McMillan, a man known for both charm and hubris. “Los Alamos is a legend,” McMillan has boasted in a promotional video. “It’s an icon. And of course, because of that, everybody notices what we do here; and we’re held to a very high standard.”
Moniz said he told McMillan personally that “I was not entirely satisfied with the reactions of some of his senior managers.” As a result, he said, “actions were taken,” without offering details.
But progress was not swift.
The NNSA, in its annual evaluation of Los Alamos' overall performance for fiscal year 2014, judged the criticality safety program to be “below expectations” with deficiencies “similar to issues identified in past” evaluations; it particularly faulted the labels the lab had placed on nuclear materials and the guides the lab had prepared for workers performing plutonium handling chores.
Some of these shortfalls persisted in 2015, and new ones were discovered. On May 6, 2015, for example, the NNSA sent Los Alamos’ managing contractors a letter again criticizing the lab for being slow to fix criticality risks. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which summarized the letter in one of its weekly reports, said “there are currently 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 they 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.
Asked about the persistence of the Los Alamos lab’s problems, former NNSA director Miller smiled and said her colleagues at the nuclear oversight agency sometimes told the following joke: If Washington sent all three of America’s nuclear weapons labs an order to study how to “jump,” they would all respond differently. Lawrence Livermore, she said, would convene a conference and produce a three-inch stack of reports about “jumping.” Officials at Sandia would simply jump.
But at Los Alamos, she said, officials would instinctively respond with a “**ck you, we’re not jumping.”
[moderator: an extensive timeline too large to fit this reposting can be found on the original article website. This timeline traces the long and troubled history of safety deficiencies at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Plutonium Facility by detailing the timing of some 40 government reports and expert presentations spanning the past 11 years. Timeline by Patrick Malone and Jared Bennett]
New troubles last year
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. Even now, “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 during 2016, but problems continued. During a drill simulating a criticality accident on June, 15, 2016, some alarms at PF-4 didn’t work, and workers showed “inattentiveness” to a colleague who pretended to be wounded, according to a Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board summary of the exercise; as a result, they were judged to have failed portions of the test.
Then on June 21, 2016, after technicians working in a glove box 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, according to an internal Los Alamos report.
Using cheesecloth in such cleanups has been barred by the Energy Department since 1994, because its contact with plutonium readily triggers chemical reactions and fires. The prohibition was ignored to ill effect on Aug. 11, 2003, when two workers at PF-4 inhaled plutonium after a sudden reaction between that material, organic cheesecloth, and acid. A similar chemical reaction stemming from the sloppy disposal of Los Alamos’ nuclear waste in 2014 provoked the shutdown of a deep-underground storage site in New Mexico for more than two years, a DOE accident investigation concluded. That incident cost the government more than a billion dollars in cleanup and other expenses.
Nonetheless, in 2016 the contractors that run Los Alamos — Bechtel National, Inc., AECOM, BWXT Government Group, Inc., and the University of California — received 74 percent or $10.7 million of the $14.4 million in profits available to them from the NNSA in the category that includes pit production and surveillance (all their actual expenses are separately reimbursed every year by the government).
In its November 2016 evaluation, which was informed in part by the contractors’ assessment of their own performance, the NNSA explained the payout. “The Laboratory exceeded expectations” in its progress toward being ready to fully resume activities in PF-4, the evaluation said. Spokesmen for the companies, as well as their joint consortium, declined comment.
Marvin Adams, a nuclear physicist at Texas A&M who has been a consultant to Los Alamos’s work with warhead pits, said that “If they continue on their path to get everything back up and running, I am pretty comfortable.” But he added that he would worry if a safety shutdown was again required. “Starting and stopping in this business is a huge issue,” Adams said. “You cannot fire these people and then go out on the street and hire them or replace them.”
But criticality experts remain worried.
One of those who went to see Miller, the NNSA director, in 2011 to complain about criticality safety was Jerry McKamy, a former NNSA nuclear physicist who is now a senior expert at the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but made clear in a trade journal article last December that the nuclear complex’s poor handling of criticality safety has been endemic.
Citing the safety history at Los Alamos and other facilities, McKamy wrote that “DOE and its contractors have repeatedly shown they are not capable of anticipating and preventing serious criticality safety problems.” They have persistently ignored “written and credible warnings by criticality safety and management experts,” he wrote.
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.”
He emphasized that Los Alamos had “assembled a production development pit” and said that work on a particular modernized warhead — due for delivery to the Navy in less than two years — provided proof of “the NNSA’s ability and the ability of our M&O partners” — contractors — to deliver updated nuclear weapons “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 nuclear weapon modernization campaign, the GAO disclosed the existence of an internal NNSA report forecasting that PF-4 will be unable to meet a congressional demand for production of 30 new pits per year by 2026, as part of a 30-year, $1 trillion nuclear weapons update. It said the pit production schedule is likely to slip two to three years.
The “production development pit” Klotz referenced during his March 1 speech and publicized in photos released by NNSA was actually made during a practice run, and so it could not be used in the arsenal, according to current and former government officials with access to classified information about the work.
Then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited PF-4 at Los Alamos in Sept. 2016. Flickr/Los Alamos National Lab
After Carter donned a protective moon-suit to witness the event, he issued a statement saying that “a strong plutonium science and manufacturing capability is essential to the U.S. nuclear deterrent and cannot be underestimated.” But he declined through a spokesman to say exactly what he was told by the lab during his visit about the status of the production effort.
Moreover, late last year, when Los Alamos conducted its first scheduled destructive 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’ 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.
It “resulted in a ‘no test’ and loss of the test asset [pit] as a result of test set up issues,” according to the NNSA report. Another destructive pit test scheduled for last year — after being delayed for at least a year — had to be abandoned outright because a nuclear safety analysis of the work wasn’t completed, the NNSA’s evaluation of the lab said.
Other plutonium work at PF-4 also has not fully resumed. At a public hearing in Santa Fe on June 7, the head of NNSA’s oversight office at Los Alamos said that federal permission in particular has not been granted for renewed work with plutonium liquids, which is needed to purify plutonium taken from older warheads for reuse, normally a routine practice.
Safety official McConnell also told the hearing that while Los Alamos is making progress, it still has been unable to resolve the safety issue that provoked its shutdown four years ago, namely an acute shortage of engineers who are trained in how to keep the plutonium from becoming “critical” and fissioning uncontrollably on its own because too much of it is concentrated in a particular space. “They’re not where we need them yet,” he said of the lab and its managers.
McConnell also disclosed that NNSA is now quietly 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.
“The lab has struggled to hire experienced engineers,” the lab’s criticality safety chief said in the presentation to colleagues at Sandia last month. “We recognize and acknowledge that we are on a multi-year journey to eliminate resource constraints and to become completely compliant with national standards."
A separate Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report in February detailed the magnitude of the shortfall:
Los Alamos’ dangerous work, it said, demands 27 fully qualified criticality safety engineers.
The lab has 10.