The rot is climbing up into the science community

That story about nuclear fuel rods freaked me out a little bit, but nothing like this more in-depth coverage of the incident by Science magazine. One incident is a terrible and possibly deadly mistake, but what’s going on at Los Alamos is a whole pattern of negligence. The lab where the plutonium work is done has been shut down for almost four years.

Officials privately say that the closure in turn undermined the nation’s ability to fabricate the cores of new nuclear weapons and obstructed key scientific examinations of existing weapons to ensure they still work. The exact cost to taxpayers of idling the facility is unclear, but an internal Los Alamos report estimated in 2013 that shutting down the lab where such work is conducted costs the government as much as $1.36 million a day in lost productivity.

And most remarkably, Los Alamos’s managers still have not figured out a way to fully meet the most elemental nuclear safety standards. When the Energy Department on Feb. 1 released its annual report card reviewing criticality risks at each of its 24 nuclear sites, ranging from research reactors to weapon labs, Los Alamos singularly did “not meet expectations.”

In fact, Los Alamos violated nuclear industry rules for guarding against a criticality accident three times more often last year than the Energy Department’s 23 other nuclear installations combined, that report said. Because of its shortcomings, federal permission has not been granted for renewed work with plutonium liquids, needed to purify plutonium taken from older warheads for reuse, normally a routine practice.

Moreover, a year-long investigation by the Center makes clear that pushing the rods too closely together in 2011 wasn’t the first time that Los Alamos workers had mishandled plutonium and risked deaths from an inadvertent burst of radiation. Between 2005 and 2016, the lab’s persistent and serious shortcomings in “criticality” safety have been criticized in more than 40 reports by government oversight agencies, teams of nuclear safety experts, and the lab’s own staff.

I kind of feel like the loss in productivity in building nuclear weapons is a plus, but more troubling is the general loss of competence and expertise. I don’t want us to build more bombs, but I do want a science and engineering community that knows how to handle the dangerous products of our science.

“There’s a systemic issue here,” said Brady Raap. “There are a lot of things there [at Los Alamos] that are examples of what not to do.”

George Anastas, a past president of the Health Physics Society who analyzed dozens of internal government reports about criticality problems at Los Alamos for the Center, said he wonders if “the work at Los Alamos [can] be done somewhere else? Because it appears the safety culture, the safety leadership, has gone to hell in a handbasket.”

Anastas said the reports, spanning more than a decade, describe “a series of accidents waiting to happen.” The lab, he said, is “dodging so many bullets that it’s scary as hell.”

Well, heck, we can afford to poison the northern half of New Mexico, right?

I just remember working with George Streisinger years ago, a biologist who was extraordinarily concerned with nuclear proliferation and weapons testing, and the dangers of radiation. I can’t even imagine how angry he’d be at this casual negligence and lack of respect for the power and risk of nuclear physics.


  1. says

    Their data security hasn’t been great either, including “losing” a highly classified hard drive containing fluid dynamic simulation software used to design asymmetric implosions for fusion warheads.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    Wait, wait, I know how the Senate majority will want to handle this. Since private enterprise always do things better than the government, they will let private enterprise take over the tasks handled at Los Alamos. Specifically, they will give the job to the lowest bidder.

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Hasn’t Hanford been leaking plutonium waste for decades? They’re not gone so no big deal in Los Almost. /sarcasm
    sheet, and I thought nukular pow was our savior from burning dinofuel.
    Guess we gotta use that ball of fire in the sky (a handy source of fusion power), and the hot wind blowin’ us all over.
    Tidal power is next, to extract power from the moon also.
    — exit stage left
    seriously. Speechless. *sigh*

  4. sterculus says

    It’s sad to see hysteria from ignorance on this blog. How many times have you criticized physicists for saying stupid things about biology, and now you decide to turn that around?

    A criticality accident would certainly be bad, but we’re talking about a “Demon Core”-esque accident ( in the absolute worst case, not anything like an accident that could “poison the northern half of New Mexico”. This would be like posting that the CDC pathogen handing errors a couple years ago were just one step away from starting the zombie apocalypse.

    I’m not going to spend time trying to defend the PF-4 people, because they have certainly done some stupid things, but if you want to criticize them please do so without the unnecessary hyperbole. I feel like this also goes for a lot of the press, which get scared by anything with the word ‘nuclear’ in it.

    (Full disclaimer: I work for Los Alamos but in a totally separate part of the lab doing unrelated physics)

  5. blf says

    US nuclear base inspection results made secret to conceal failures, critics claim (yesterday, 3 July):

    ‘Pass-fail’ grades declared off-limits, which the Pentagon says is to prevent adversaries from learning too much about nuclear weapons vulnerabilities

    The Pentagon has thrown a cloak of secrecy over assessments of the safety and security of its nuclear weapons operations, a part of the military with a history of periodic inspection failures and bouts of low morale.

    Overall results of routine inspections at nuclear weapons bases, such as a “pass-fail” grade, had previously been publicly available. They are now off-limits. The change goes beyond the standard practice of withholding detailed information on the inspections.

    The stated reason for the change is to prevent adversaries from learning too much about US nuclear weapons vulnerabilities. Navy Capt Greg Hicks, spokesman for the joint chiefs of staff, said the added layer of secrecy was deemed necessary.


    Critics question the lockdown of information.

    “The whole thing smells bad,” said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert with the Federation of American Scientists. “They’re acting like they have something to hide, and it’s not national security secrets.

    “I think the new policy fails to distinguish between protecting valid secrets and shielding incompetence,” he added. “Clearly, nuclear weapons technology secrets should be protected. But negligence or misconduct in handling nuclear weapons should not be insulated from public accountability.”

    The decision to conceal results from inspections of how nuclear weapons are operated, maintained and guarded follows a secret recommendation generated by in-depth Pentagon reviews of problems with the weapons, workers and facilities making up the nation’s nuclear force.

    But the problems that prompted the reviews three years ago weren’t created by releasing inspection results. The problems were actual shortcomings in the nuclear force, including occasional poor performance, security lapses and flawed training, driven in part by underspending and weak leadership.

    The overall results of such inspections, minus security-sensitive details, used to be publicly available.


    The Pentagon has never asserted that reporting on nuclear inspection results has compromised nuclear security.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    sterculus @ # 5: … a totally separate part of the lab doing unrelated physics.

    Why the hell would a topmost-secret weapons facility wayyy out in the desert mountains host the gigantic security risk of “unrelated physics” workers within its high-voltage/razor-wire fences?

  7. Forrest Phelps says

    Having spent thirty years working in various aspects of the Nuclear Power Industry, I can assure everyone the problems associated with it can be easily overcome, once we figure out how to eliminate human error. And greed. Greed elimination would also be helpful. Oh, and some guy named Murphy. He needs to be permanently laid off.

  8. frankb says

    Sterculus #5.
    What the experience of the Demon Core showed was that sometimes quick thinking and self sacrifice is all that stands between one death and a dozen deaths. Also are you willing to claim that intense radiation emanating from a room couldn’t possibly cause a fire or explosion from surrounding materials and equipment?

  9. Karo Lina says

    It’s not like the biological military labs are doing better, if that incident with accidentally shipping live anthrax samples is anything to go by.

  10. Kevin Henderson says

    Human error is still a major concern within the nuclear energy and weapons community, but the chance of any substantial portion of a state becoming contaminated is incredibly unlikely.

    I agree that many physicists get a lot of things wrong about evolutionary biology, but it’s equally disappointing to see the public misunderstanding the risks associated with nuclear physics and engineering.