The Department of Energy is scheduled to decide within days where plutonium parts for the next generation of nuclear weapons are to be made, but recent internal government reports indicate serious and persistent safety issues plague both of the two candidate sites.
An announcement by the Trump administration about the location is expected by May 11, in preparation for the ramped-up production of nuclear warheads called for by the Defense Department’s recent review of America’s nuclear weapons policy.
Some experts are worried about the safety records of either choice: Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where plutonium parts have historically been assembled, and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where other nuclear materials for America’s bombs have been made since in the 1950s.
Recent internal government reports obtained by the Center for Public Integrity have warned that workers at these plants have been handling nuclear materials sloppily, or have failed to monitor safety issues aggressively.
Personnel at Savannah River, for example, came dangerously close to a lethal nuclear accident in January 2015, when the stirring mechanism for a tank that held plutonium solution failed. Flecks of plutonium sank to the bottom of the tank, close enough for their neutrons to interact in a way that threatened to kick off a nuclear chain reaction – known as a criticality – that could have killed everyone in the room and spread radioactivity.
Since then, the site’s nuclear materials operations have been conducted under special oversight by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an Energy Department component that produces warheads for the military. A group of senior Energy Department engineers and physicists concluded in a report in March, however, that while the unusual arrangement has brought some improvements, it hasn’t fixed key problems.
They said after an inspection visit from Jan. 8 through 18 that some top managers at the site were still alarmingly inattentive to safety, and were not adequately heeding the advice of their safety experts.
At Los Alamos, plutonium handling errors forced at least three work stoppages in March alone, including one halting all work associated with plutonium pits, after many similar stoppages in recent years, according to reports by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent federal oversight agency in Washington.
Although the Energy Department said the site is making progress, plutonium handlers at the lab confused the terms “staging” and “storage” twice in recent weeks, leading to plutonium being placed in areas and containers where it was prohibited and unsafe, the independent safety board reports stated.