Safety issues probed at Texas nuclear plant

The Department of Energy announces its Pantex inquiry, sparked by reports of long hours and poor conditions.

December 13, 2006|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

The Energy Department said Tuesday that it was investigating a series of alleged safety problems at its Pantex nuclear weapons plant near Amarillo, Texas, including complaints by employees that they were being required to work up to 84 hours a week to meet decommissioning schedules for nuclear weapons.

The complaints were first raised in an anonymous five-page letter sent last month to John Fees, president of BWX Technologies Inc., which operates the plant under an Energy Department contract. In a statement, the Energy Department said it began its investigation as soon as it received the letter.

The Pantex plant, which has 3,500 employees, handles the servicing of nuclear weapons and the decommissioning of excess weapons under arms control treaties. During the Cold War, it was the sole assembly site for nuclear bombs.

Employees characterized conditions at the Pantex complex, which sits on 25 square miles and began nuclear work in the early 1950s, as "degraded" and in disrepair in many areas. The letter also said engineers were being required to work up to 84 hours in a seven-day week and production technicians 72 hours in a six-day week.

The employees said the company was preoccupied with safety slogans, such as the recently created "Pantex High Reliability Organization," that were masking the stresses in the plant. "Senior management is distracted, losing sight of the overall picture and circumstances," the letter said, adding that some managers lacked specific experience in handling nuclear weapons.

"The consequences are almost too awful to speak," the employees said, adding that an accidental nuclear detonation would kill everybody in the plant, destroy the complex and parts of Amarillo, as well as contaminate thousands of square miles.

The authenticity of the letter has not been called into question, though BWXT officials issued a statement sharply disputing the allegations.

"BWXT Pantex takes seriously any employee concerns about safe operations, and the company is currently comparing the specific concerns expressed in the letter with the reality of its day-to-day work," plant General Manager Dan Swaim said. "The company strongly disagrees with the writers' viewpoint that successful production negatively impacts worker safety."

Swaim said the company was conducting an internal review of the allegations.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said Tuesday that he had directed the top safety and health officials of the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency within the Energy Department, to investigate conditions at Pantex.

The Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that has focused on nuclear security and safety, asked Bodman in a letter Thursday to send BMXT a message by cutting its profit and to force the company to hire more workers. The group said it had confirmed a number of the allegations in the letter, which was first reported by the Amarillo Globe-News.

Some of the allegations were also cited this year by federal inspectors from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent agency that checks safety conditions at nuclear weapons plants.

An August field report by the safety board said BWXT was having difficulty finding qualified production technicians and was forcing its staff to work six 12-hour days a week, the maximum its procedures allowed. The conditions were supposed to improve by September; no subsequent reporting has indicated whether the situation changed.

The safety board also reported that severe weather in Amarillo had left a number of facilities with standing water. "Leaks through facility structure left puddles of water in several nuclear facility interlocks and bays and equipment rooms that support nuclear operations," the August report said.

The employees put the issue more bluntly: "Look around the plant. You will find leaking roofs, crumbling buildings, waist-high weed-infested landscapes, barricades and safety tape that makes this once-proud plant look like a crime scene."

Weekly reports have noted a series of violations of authorized procedures. On Nov. 27, the company was fined $110,000 for safety violations involving excessive force used in 2004 in disassembling a W56 nuclear bomb -- an old design that lacks modern safety features.

Despite ordering an investigation, Bodman said that the Energy Department had "confidence that Pantex will continue its outstanding work, while keeping stringent safety and security policies in place."

The high level of activity at the Pantex plant apparently reflects the increasing amount of work to maintain aging U.S. nuclear weapons that must be overhauled, as well as to decommission weapons under the 2002 Moscow Treaty. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to reduce deployed strategic warheads to about 2,000 each by 2012, a two-thirds reduction for the U.S.

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