Safety Is Job One! How many times have you seen the slogan? Usually it’s on a sign tucked away in the back room or the bathroom of a restaurant or car dealership, usually with a sketch of a mop and pail and a puddle on the floor. Yes, Safety Is Job One.
But, y’know, when it comes to nuclear weapons labs, places full of explosive, toxic and radiological materials, safety darn well ought to be Job One.
And right in the recently-released Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration request for proposals for the $2.2 billion a year contract to run Los Alamos National Labs, it says it is. Bidders will be held responsible “to foster a culture of security and safety consciousness.”
A stellar series of investigative reports by our guest today Patrick Malone of the Center for Public Integrity, published on the front pages of The Washington Post and USA Today and other papers around the country, revealed how little safety has mattered in the culture of Los Alamos Labs.
And… wake up, National Nuclear Security Administration!! – the CPI series documented similar problems recurring at several other major bases of our national nuclear weapons industry.
We talked with Patrick about the series of near-miss catastrophes caused in part by ignorance of, or just plain ignoring, common sense nuclear safety rules that he and his CPI colleagues revealed. They occurred at Sandia and Idaho National Labs, the Hanford and Nevada Test Sites, and, again and again, at Los Alamos National Labs. If you missed that conversation, search it out on the davemarash.com website.
What we didn’t get to then, but will today, is the system run by the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration that enables these repeated mistakes, that coddles managers like the present crew at Los Alamos Labs, and keeps them well-compensated, undisciplined and on the job, no matter what.
Well, that last is changing. In 2018. At Los Alamos National Laboratories. Management is not being renewed and the lucrative job of replacing them is up for bids.
And all it took was a series of potentially deadly mistakes in Los Alamos’ Plutonium lab PF-4, which were so ignored by management that in 2013, 12 of the Labs’ 14 nuclear safety engineers quit, which forced NNSA to order Los Alamos to shut PF-4 down. It’s been shut for 4 years, going on 5.
But, wait there’s more…it was a mistake and a cover up at Los Alamos in 2014, that sent a dangerous mix of radioactive materials to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico. Because someone at Los Alamos put the wrong kind of kitty litter in a barrel, it blew up in its WIPP site storage room. Because of the cover-up, when it blew, the people at WIPP literally didn’t know what hit them, until dosimeters showed more than a dozen employees had been exposed to potentially dangerous radiation. The WIPP site has now been closed for 3 and a half years, and counting.
So, in 2015, the Energy Department told Los Alamos National Security LLC they were goners, as of 2018. A real sense of urgency there about Job One.
In the years since, 2016 and 2017, both safety violations and potentially scary incidents have continued.
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.