The United States assembles and disassembles its nuclear weapons at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas. The facility is a prime target for terrorists, and is located in a region susceptible to tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes. National security and public safety require that the plant to be ready for all kinds of worst-case scenarios.
However, a new report suggests Pantex isn’t prepared for the big one. The evaluation, conducted by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), found major problems with Pantex’s disaster preparedness including a lack of training for staff, poor communication with public safety personnel, and inefficient decision-making tools for emergencies.
The DNFSB found that Pantex does not conduct safety drills often enough, and that those exercises are limited in their scope, realism, and radiological consequences. Plant operators are only required to do one test per year, and those tests do not need to include the entire facility staff or the possibility of radioactive fallout. The last time Pantex conducted a site-wide drill in which the plant practiced for a significant nuclear emergency was over four years ago. The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy, contracts out management of nuclear weapons facilities, including Pantex. NNSA and Consolidated Nuclear Security, which runs the plant, are supposed to work together to evaluate drills and improve Pantex’s readiness. However, the DNFSB found that NNSA they are not critical enough in their evaluations—this makes an already weak emergency preparedness program even less useful.
In an emergency, DNFSB discovered that Pantex would likely struggle to alert the public of off-site radiological dangers in a timely manner. In the event of an emergency, the Department of Energy requires the public be notified within 30 minutes. However, proximity of the plant to civilian buildings means public exposure could happen in a shorter period of time. Moreover, Pantex has the ability to make computer models of the fallout, but would have to wait to take real-life measurements until a response team arrived from Austin, 500 miles away. As in the case of emergency drills, it is difficult to assess readiness because the plant has not simulated off-site radiological monitoring in over five years.
The Board also found that decision-making tools available to Pantex in an emergency do not work quickly enough and “do not consider all hazards at the site.” These tools include protocols, decision trees, and environmental monitoring equipment. To the extent that these tools are inefficient or make it difficult to ascertain the nature of an emergency, they could delay site workers and the public from seeking safety. For example, if there are reports of an explosion in a building with nuclear weapons material, the current emergency plan requires visual confirmation before ordering an evacuation. Many decision trees depend on such confirmatory indicators. However, “confirmation” is often poorly defined, which could delay protective actions in events where the danger level is not immediately clear.
The DNFSB report echoes concerns that POGO raised about public safety during a strike at Pantex earlier this year, and in retrospect makes them even more alarming. Due to a contract dispute, employees, including maintenance staff for security alarms, fire and emergency medical personnel, and those trained to move nuclear weapons and material around the plant were off work for more than a month. Pantex attempted to continue operations by pressing managerial staff into service, even though they were not proficient in their employees’ jobs. For example, a manager almost crashed a forklift into a shelter where disassembled weapons are stored.
This is but the latest instance of the NNSA paying lip service to safety and security at its facilities. Nuclear weapons facilities have historically struggled with physical protection (Pantex is usually the exception to the rule in this regard). Security forces at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Labs have frequently failed security tests. Forces at other sites have been caught cheating on multiple occasions. In 2012, a nun and two protestors broke into the Y-12 weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, enabled in part by faulty security systems. A 2015 report by the Department of Energy Inspector General found that a $50-million effort to upgrade security systems had not resolved key issues.
If budgets are the most honest reflection of an institution’s priorities, then NNSA’s budgets show a “safety last” approach to emergency preparedness, labor practices, and physical security. As the Government Accountability Office reported earlier this year, NNSA has been sparing with funds for maintenance and upkeep, down to relying on obsolete fire suppression systems.
Since NNSA has not done what it needs to do to minimize the risk of a disaster, it is especially important that facilities be able to react if a nuclear emergency does occur. To that end, the Board has made several recommendations to Pantex. First, emergency drills should incorporate “all hazards, all facilities, and all responders,” and be subject to more stringent critiques. Second, Pantex should develop the ability to monitor radioactive releases and provide timely and accurate information to the public. Third, the plant should test, and where necessary, correct the decision-making tools it will use in an emergency.
NNSA responded to the Board’s recommendations, writing “We appreciate the DNFSB’s perspective…[and] are confident that, even with deficiencies identified by the DNFSB, the Pantex Emergency Management Program can perform its role to ensure this protection.”
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