What does it say when 12 out of the 14 people responsible for safety at the local laboratory quit their jobs together, saying the bosses at the lab don’t care much about safety? It says to me, there must be some kind of problem at the lab.
But that’s just what happened at Los Alamos National Labs back in 2013. 14 out of 16 safety engineers walked out together, not a demonstration, not a strike, they flat quit their steady, and in the economy of New Mexico, well-paying jobs because they knew about a regular series of accidents and mistakes that had hurt people at the lab and could have killed a lot more and management didn’t seem to care.
And when the National Nuclear Safety Administration called to ask how you could run a nuclear weapons lab with just 2 of your 16 safety engineers, Los Alamos Labs’ Boss, Charles McMillan, a million dollar a year nuclear physicist and former weapons designer, said he could. NNSA said he couldn’t, and in the end McMillian agreed to shut down one of his “dangerous accident” hot spots, the PF4 Plutonium Unit down, but just for a few months, till the safety staff could be recruited and trained.
Now, it’s 4 years later, and PF4 is still shut and the reason is still the same: Los Alamos Labs has not been able to field a safety team and plan that meets a standard the National Nuclear Safety Administration will accept.
Meanwhile, keeping the Los Alamos PF4 unit shut does 2 terrible things to our strategic forces…it prevents testing of old nuclear warheads to see if they’ll still work, and it has stopped dead a program to develop a new and improved set of “pits,” the Plutonium cores at the heart of our nuclear warheads.
For the 4 years that PF4 has been shut down, Los Alamos Labs have continued to produce safety-related disasters, ranging from the mis-labeled nuclear package that blew up and contaminated the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, WIPP for short, and has closed it down for 3 years now, and counting…to the mis-directed nuclear package that, just a few weeks ago, flew cargo instead being put in a truck, as safety rules demand.
And it’s not just Los Alamos, as he revealed late last month in a great series of investigative reports for the Center for Public Integrity, our guest Patrick Malone and his colleagues found seriously threatening examples of workplace insecurity at Sandia Labs in NM, and at the Idaho National Lab and the Nevada Test Site. Behind the events Patrick found several malign patterns, Labs that put profits and deadlines ahead of safety; a Federal Safety Administration starved of budget and staff; and a Department of Energy much happier to pay off its contractors at the labs than penalize them for repeated, egregious violations of safety codes and common sense.
Patrick Malone joined the Center for Public Integrity in May 2015 to cover national security. He spent 20 years reporting on justice, politics and deep investigations for newspapers in Colorado and New Mexico, most recently at The Santa Fe New Mexican. The Associated Press Media Editors recognized his work with honorable mention in the public service category of its national Journalism Excellence Awards for reporting that uncloaked secrets behind a radiation accident caused by Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2014. Malone also received a national award for health care policy reporting from the Association of Health Care Journalists for an expose in 2014 that revealed how hospitals leverage inflated consumer health care costs into tax breaks. He has received dozens of regional journalism awards for his coverage of cover-ups involving sexual abuse by Catholic priests, culture and corruption inside the Colorado prison system, and money and influence in politics, among other subjects.