In the summer of 2011, Los Alamos National Laboratory presented a happy self-portrait to the public. The lab’s news releases bragged of promotions, awards, pacts with neighboring Native American tribes and great feats of science that spilled from the design of the nation’s nuclear weapons.
But that year something alarming happened at Los Alamos that the lab kept quiet. A pair of workers with cavalier attitudes nearly doomed a room full of colleagues by stuffing so much plutonium into a small space that they came close to triggering an accidental nuclear chain reaction, all to get some photos.
Only a few spare documents describing the incident are readily found in the public domain. Fewer still explain what consequences the carelessness at Los Alamos has had for the Department of Energy and its national security mission. But when the Center for Public Integrity’s national security team of Jeff Smith and Patrick Malone learned of the near-nuclear mishap and sensed its broader impact, they decided to dig deeper.
Our main finding: The Los Alamos contractor’s inattention to safety crimped critical aspects of nuclear weapons-related work for so long that it would make a no-nukes protester envious.
In addition, with excellent reporting help by Peter Cary, ample evidence turned up that even in modern times the nation’s premier nuclear weapons labs and plants are a dangerous place to work: Workers are seriously injured by explosions, shocks, burns, falls and the inhalation of radioactive dust. The accident rate appears to be going up. And yet the program established by the Department of Energy to guarantee the safety of its workers appears to have made little to no headway in reducing those risks, as the government itself admits.