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.