The Center for Public Integrity's top national security investigations in 2017

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced his national security strategy. He called for America to move away from nation-building, and focus instead on military strength and safety within U.S. borders.

In the past year, the Center has investigated both threats from abroad and from within — and, as our Nuclear Negligence series showed, threats within the confines of our own defense establishments.

Here's a look at some of our top investigations from 2017:

Nuclear Negligence

Our six-part series examined safety weaknesses at U.S. nuclear weapon sites operated by corporate contractors. What we found: Unpublicized accidents at nuclear weapons facilities, including some that caused avoidable radiation exposures. We also discovered that the penalties imposed by the government for these errors were typically small, relative to the tens of millions of dollars the government gives to each of the contractors annually in pure profit.

Here's the full series, where you'll find the following:

A near-disaster at a federal nuclear weapons laboratory takes a hidden toll on America’s arsenal


Illustration by Joanna Eberts

Technicians at Los Alamos National Laboratory placed rods of plutonium so closely together on a table in 2011 that they nearly caused a runaway nuclear chain reaction, which would likely have killed all those nearby and spread cancer-causing plutonium particles.

The accident triggered an exodus of key engineers from Los Alamos who had warned the lab to take better precautions, and their actions led in turn to a nearly four-year shutdown of key plutonium operations at Los Alamos.

>>Keep reading

Light penalties and lax oversight encourage weak safety culture at nuclear weapons labs


Illustration by Joanna Eberts

The plan on a hot summer day was to liquefy highly flammable lithium at a temperature of more than 750 degrees and then pump it into a special chamber for cooling, as part of a research project at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. But what happened instead in August 2011 was a near-catastrophe that could easily have killed two workers.

DOE called the incident a “near miss to serious injury or fatality,” and its Sept. 25, 2014, notice of violation to Sandia Corp., a Lockheed Martin subsidiary, cited four Severity Level I violations, which can result in injury or death, and three lesser Severity Level II violations. It proposed a civil penalty of $412,500 — a penalty waived by the Department of Energy.

The strange tale of what happened at Sandia and how the Energy Department reacted to it is not an aberration, though — instead, it’s part of what’s become a pattern that some experts consider alarming.

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Nuclear weapons contractors repeatedly violate shipping rules for dangerous materials


Illustration by Joanna Eberts

Plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives, and highly toxic chemicals have been improperly packaged or shipped by nuclear weapons contractors at least 25 times in the past five years, according to government documents.

While the materials were not ultimately lost, the documents reveal repeated instances in which hazardous substances vital to making nuclear bombs and their components were mislabeled before shipment. That means those transporting and receiving them were not warned of the safety risks and did not take required precautions to protect themselves or the public, the reports say.

>>Keep reading

More in national security:

Military trainees at defense universities later committed serious human rights abuses


Rebecca Blackwell/AP

The Defense Department trained at least 17 high-ranking foreigners at some of its top schools who were later convicted or accused of criminal and human rights abuses in their own countries, according to a series of little-noticed, annual State Department reports to Congress.

Those singled out in the disclosures included five foreign generals, an admiral, a senior intelligence official, a foreign police inspector, and other military service members from a total of 13 countries, several of which endured war or coups.

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Trump pick for Air Force boss frustrated auditors with lucrative, murky consulting for nuclear weapons labs


Eric Draper/AP

A federal inspector contacted the Energy Department fraud hotline a few years back to flag irregularities in contracts that several nuclear weapons laboratories had signed with a former New Mexico Congresswoman whom President Trump has designated to become the new Air Force Secretary. A far-reaching probe ensued in Washington after the hotline contact, which ended in a demand that the weapons labs give back nearly a half-million dollars to the government. The former Congresswoman, Heather Wilson, has said she did not do anything wrong in trading on her Washington experience to become a “strategic adviser” to the labs.

But internal Energy Department documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity make clear that some of the contracting irregularities stemmed from demands specifically made by Wilson in her negotiations with the labs.

>>Keep reading

Can Trump single-handedly order a nuclear attack on North Korea?


Andrew Harnik/AP

Could the United States launch a nuclear attack on North Korea, even before it is attacked? And could President Donald Trump order such an attack on his own?

These once improbable questions have been vigorously discussed in the capital since Trump this summer raised the prospect of raining “fire and fury” on North Korea in response to the isolated country’s military threats, and then weeks later claimed that North Korea faced “total destruction” if the United States felt it had to defend itself against an attack.

>>Keep reading

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