Senator cites Center for Public Integrity probe in questioning safety practices of weapons contractors

McCaskill letter challenges a federal agency’s commitment to safety oversight and enforcement

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In this June 6, 2017, file photo, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asks a question during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Susan Walsh/AP

A senior member of the Senate’s government oversight committee is demanding that the National Nuclear Security Administration explain and account for safety lapses at nuclear weapons facilities that were recently disclosed in an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity.

In a letter sent on Aug. 3, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the top-ranked Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked NNSA administrator Frank Klotz to clarify the impact of the weapons production safety errors detailed by the Center, explain the costs incurred as a result of those errors and detail what steps the agency is taking to strengthen its safety enforcement.

McCaskill’s letter also asked Klotz to grade his agency’s own performance, and questioned whether the agency feels it is “meeting its duty to prevent dangerous nuclear accidents.” In a statement with the letter, she said “there’s clearly a safety problem at NNSA, which puts our nation’s nuclear security program at risk. It’s time for NNSA to address safety issues and hold contractors accountable.”

McCaskill, who is also a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has previously been critical of poor contract oversight and weak whistleblower protections by the Department of Energy, which includes the semi-autonomous NNSA.

Her four-page letter recounted various safety incidents revealed by the Center, including a 2011 episode in which workers at Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico placed plutonium rods dangerously close to one another to take a photograph of them, risking an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction that would have killed those present.

The facility where the incident occurred is the nation’s only lab capable of fabricating new cores for nuclear weapons and testing old ones to ensure they work, and after the accident that facility was closed for nearly four years while Los Alamos struggled to meet relevant safety standards.

McCaskill asked Klotz to explain the status of the facility and the costs associated with its closure. She also asked how much of the $13.9 billion that President Trump has proposed spending at NNSA during the next fiscal year would be dedicated to improving safety, and whether NNSA plans to sanction the private contractors that operate the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities for their safety lapses, beyond the relatively slight penalties it has imposed so far.

NNSA spokesman Greg Wolf did not immediately reply to a request for comment. He has previously said “NNSA has uncompromising standards for our laboratories, plants, and sites to perform work in a safe and secure manner that protects our employees, our facilities and the public.”

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