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Project on Government Oversight

POGO letter to DOE Secretary Bodman regarding serious safety problems at Pantex, a nuclear weapons assembly facility

Related Content: Nuclear Security, Pantex
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December 12, 2006

Honorable Samuel Bodman
Secretary of Energy
Department of Energy
1000 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, DC 20585

Via Facsimile: (202) 586-4403

Dear Secretary Bodman:

In November 2006, the Project On Government Oversight received the attached anonymous letter from a number of workers at the Pantex Plant outside Amarillo, Texas. The letter raised some very serious safety concerns at Pantex. POGO has been able to confirm a number of the problems raised in the letter, including that there is widespread fatigue and overworking of production technicians who work on the warheads. As you know, safety at Pantex is paramount in the nuclear weapons complex because it is responsible for assembling and disassembling nuclear weapons.

According to the August 2006 “Pantex Plant Weekly Report” from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, “PTs [production technicians] work 72 hour weeks (6 days, 12 hours).” POGO has been told by sources that 80 hours per week is not unusual. As you know, this is already a high stress working environment dealing with high explosives and full up, or fully assembled, nuclear weapons. The excessive work hours are resulting from pressure by Pantex operator BWXT and the National Nuclear Security Administration to meet unrealistic production goals given the size of the workforce. In 2007, the disassembly production goals will increase by 50%. This is a recipe for disaster. One senior nuclear scientist said that he “would not work on his car engine if he were fatigued from a 72-hour work week, and sure as hell would not work on a nuclear weapon.”

Pantex has had serious safety problems spanning back at least several years. For example, in 2004, while a W56 warhead – which, at 1200 kilotons (or 100 times the yield of a Hiroshima bomb), is one of the largest missile-launched warheads in our stockpile – was being disassembled, a crack was discovered in the high explosive (HE). Technicians used the equivalent of duct tape to hold the cracked high explosive together. The next year, Pantex paid a $124,000 fine for safety violations related to the HE cracking incident.

Now we have learned that in March 2005, there was a “near-miss” event while disassembling another W56 warhead. Apparently the production technicians were using a faulty tool, putting too much pressure on the warhead. On November 29, 2006, Pantex was only fined $110,000 – 18 months after the near-miss incident. What was not made public at the time the fine was levied, however, is that according to safety experts knowledgeable about this event, it could actually have resulted in the detonation of the warhead. This incident was particularly dangerous because the W56 warhead was deployed in 1965, pre-dating the three basic enhanced safety features which reduce the possibility of an accidental detonation that are now required on more modern weapons. There are still several older warheads slated for dismantlement that do not include these enhanced features.

Both fines are chump change for BWXT, which makes as much as $30 million annually in award fees and incentives for operating Pantex alone, after its costs are covered. These ridiculously-low fines provide absolutely no deterrent for the sloppy safety procedures of BWXT.

While the older and more unstable nuclear warheads continue to be handled at Pantex, it is clearly of the utmost importance that DOE hold the contractor equally accountable for safety as for production schedules. By cutting corners, BWXT is unnecessarily endangering the workforce, and indeed the entire Texas panhandle.

We urge the Department of Energy to consider a deep cut in the award and incentive fees so that BWXT will take these safety problems seriously.

POGO certainly applauds the acceleration of dismantling weapons in accordance with international treaties. In fact, we believe these efforts should be the highest priority for the nuclear weapons complex given the benefits dismantlement bring in cost savings and improved safety and security. As a result, additional production technicians should be hired immediately in order to bring the average work week to a more reasonable and safe level while meeting these goals. Finally, aggressive steps need to be taken to change the culture at Pantex so that workers feel free to express concerns about their work environment.

We understand that DOE and BWXT are in the midst of an investigation into these issues. We are requesting unclassified copies of these reports as soon as they are complete. If you have any questions, please contact me at (202) 347-1122.

Sincerely,


Danielle Brian
Executive Director

Enclosure: Correspondence from anonymous sources re: problems at Pantex

cc: Sen. Carl Levin
Sen. John McCain
Sen. Jeff Bingaman
Sen. Pete Domenici
Sen. Byron Dorgan
Rep. Pete Visclosky
Rep. Dave Hobson
Rep. Ike Skelton
Rep. Duncan Hunter

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