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Follow-up Letter from POGO to Energy Secretary Bodman

Related Content: Nuclear Security, Pantex
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January 22, 2007

The Honorable Samuel W. Bodman
Secretary
U.S. Department of Energy
Washington, DC 20585

Via Facsimile: (202) 586-4403


Dear Secretary Bodman:

I applaud your decision to take decisive action by bringing new leadership to NNSA, and I look forward to working with Mr. D’Agostino in his new capacity. While I certainly agree that the cyber-security and personnel security failures at Los Alamos are cause for such a leadership change, I hope that the equally serious safety concerns at Pantex are not forgotten or turned over to the contractor for investigation.

I continue to be concerned that the Department’s handling of Pantex safety issues mirrors the handling of problems at Los Alamos in that investigations are being conducted by the very organizations that are the subjects of the complaints, and that have the most to lose. In this case, it is the contractor BWXT and the NNSA that are conducting the investigations into their own operations. Such investigations can only credibly be conducted by independent bodies, such as the Inspector General; the Office of Health, Safety and Security; or the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB).

Statements made by BWXT about excessive overtime required of the workforce and the impossibility of an accidental detonation clearly indicate its inability to take an honest look at problems at Pantex. I believe it is important both to respond to some of those statements, and to clarify a point I made about the near-miss incident in my earlier letter to you.

In his December 21, 2006, column in the Amarillo Globe-News, BWXT-Pantex General Manager Dan Swaim dismisses the concerns about excessive overtime, writing, “The [Human Reliability Program] requires that workers report any concerns, such as fatigue or excessive errors, to the work team. There is essentially no chance of extreme fatigue not being detected and reported either by team members or supervision. ... our investigation confirmed that there are no recent grievances concerning excessive overtime or that someone is too fatigued to work safely.”

I would imagine people would read Mr. Swaim’s assertions and be comforted that systems are in place to prevent safety concerns. They shouldn’t be.

POGO has obtained a May 31, 2005, letter written by the AFL-CIO’s Metal Trades Council of Amarillo, Texas, President Henry Bagwell to DNFSB Acting Chairman A.J. Eggenberger:

We have had employees threatened with insubordination for questioning safety issues as well as the way work procedures are written. I have had members escorted out by the Guard Force for raising safety issues and disagreeing with supervision. Management has intimidated and brow beat many in the workforce to achieve the very attitude you question. I have gone to the extent of filing grievances to have the Company [BWXT] remove certain managers from the plant. (click here to view the letter)

Additionally, the DNFSB’s August 2006 Weekly Report also confirmed that “PTs [production technicians] work 72 hour weeks (6 days,12 hours).” NNSA Pantex Site Office Manager Daniel Glenn acknowledged the ongoing overtime problem when he stated, “While the [new overtime] policy appears to have reduced the instances of working greater than 72 hours per week, the review determined more attention is necessary to ensure this control is fully effective.”

These facts are clearly at odds with Mr. Swaim’s assurances, and alarm bells should be ringing at DOE Headquarters that bad news is not making its way up the bureaucratic chain. In other words, not only has the workforce been worked to exhaustion, but instances of “greater than 72 hours” continue to occur, despite Mr. Swaim’s dismissal of Pantex workers’ concerns about excessive overtime as being “unsubstantiated.”

Secondly, Mr. Swaim stated in his December column that, “No knowledgeable and credible individual would assert that detonation was a possibility during this operation,” and that POGO’s concerns were motivated by its “thinly veiled criticism of our nation’s nuclear deterrence policy.” Contrary to being motivated by anti-nuclear sentiments, POGO’s work on nuclear weapons complex security and safety has in fact always reflected the concerns raised by workers who have, in many cases, worked in the nuclear weapons complex their entire lives. It is a disservice to them and to us to minimize these concerns as being essentially “anti-nuclear.”

One of these concerns, as I mentioned in my previous letter, was about a January 2004 incident in which Pantex workers were ordered to improperly tape together and handle two broken pieces of high explosives in a W56 warhead. This increased the risk of an explosion of the high explosive components. According to a letter from then-DNFSB Chairman John Conway to then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, “... the configuration of the partially dismantled weapon and the nature of the cracks appear to have increased the opportunities for dropping all or part of the explosive during handling, and hence increased the potential for a violent reaction.” (click here to view the letter)

A High Explosive Violent Reaction (HEVR) occurs either through deflagration or detonation – and let me be absolutely clear, not a nuclear detonation, but a chemical high-explosive detonation – which could have dispersed radioactive material killing everyone in the near vicinity and contaminating a part of the Pantex facility. POGO is fully aware that a detonation involving the full yield of a weapon is a very low probability event. However, contrary to Mr. Swaim’s statement that a detonation was not possible, a detonation of the high explosive could in fact have occurred and would have been devastating to the workers of Pantex as well as to the surrounding area. Such a possibility should not be minimized by BWXT management.

Mr. Swaim’s attitude was presciently described by one of DOE’s top safety officials, Frank Rowsome in 2000. In a memo that was entered into the record of a March 2000 House Commerce Committee hearing, Mr. Rowsome described the culture of denial at Pantex:

“We might see an accident in which the chemical high explosive is detonated or burned while still in a nuclear weapon. That would destroy one bay or cell at Pantex, and kill the technicians (typically three to five) ... and possibly a few outside. ... management maintains that nuclear detonation is incredible at Pantex – and so not worth thinking about or analyzing or being prepared for. The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] similarly maintained that core melt accidents were incredible and not worth analyzing and not worth being prepared for at nuclear power plants – until one happened at Three Mile Island.” (click here to view excerpts)

The January 2004 event was not the only significant incident in which safety rules were violated during the handling of high explosive components in nuclear weapons. Between March and April 2005, there were three unsuccessful attempts to remove a midcase from the assembly of a W76 warhead, “during which the unit separated at an undesired location and a critical electrical component was inadvertently severed.” On at least two occasions, more than the “maximum allowed force” was applied to the “main charge high explosive,” in one case because a production technician supervisor directed production technicians to bypass a safety feature. Three hours went by before “the nuclear explosive device [was placed] in a safe and stable configuration.”

POGO takes issue with Mr. Swaim’s characterization of POGO’s and the anonymous authors’ criticisms of these incidents, and of safety in general at Pantex. He wrote that “it is the production technicians and engineering personnel who are the subject of the allegations in the letter.” We do not think that the rank and file employees, including production technicians and engineers, are the problem. Rather, we believe the environment at Pantex created by the management is the root cause of the repeated safety incidents. As Mr. Bagwell stated in his May 2005 letter, employees are threatened and intimidated when they attempt to point out safety issues.

To his credit, in a November 21, 2006, letter to Mr. Swaim, out-going NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks scolded BWXT-Pantex for not adequately overseeing itself:

I am disappointed that these improvement initiatives in your conduct of operations were, in large part, initiated at the request of both the NNSA Pantex Site Office and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. In addition, while you have recently undertaken actions to improve weaknesses in the Price-Anderson Amendments Act program, this improvement initiative was largely undertaken as the result of observations made by the DOE Office of Enforcement. While I recognize the importance of such initiatives, I expect that BWXT-Pantex will proactively identify these types of issues through self-assessment processes rather than having these issues identified by external organizations. (click here to view the letter)

While we agree with Administrator Brooks that self-assessments should catch these types of failures, we encourage you to rely on the independent analysis offered by the organizations mentioned at the top of our letter for a more rigorous evaluation. We have seen too often a failure of the weapons complex to fix itself from the inside. It is only after serious independent oversight that we have seen any improvements, however fleeting.

Sincerely,

Danielle Brian
Executive Director

Enclosures

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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