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Experts fear nuclear facility is lax on safety

Conditions at the Pantex weapons plant draw federal scrutiny.

February 21, 2007|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

AMARILLO, TEXAS — Electrical failures have shut down the plant. The roof has leaked. Decrepit machinery dates back more than 40 years. Safety lapses led inspectors to levy fines twice within two years. And employees, under deadline pressure, complain they are often worked past the point of exhaustion.

If this factory were producing medical devices or refining gasoline, the conditions would be serious enough. But this is where they work on nuclear bombs.

Pantex is the Energy Department's main nuclear weapons factory, a linchpin of the nation's defense for half a century. The nation no longer makes nuclear weapons, so the plant's chief roles are servicing them or dismantling them to meet the terms of disarmament pacts.

On a 25-square-mile swath of the Texas Panhandle, a series of massive white concrete domes mark the places where live nuclear weapons are opened up. The rituals and procedures inside those cells are supposed to be as strict as in any operating room, part of a safety culture that reduces any chance of an accidental nuclear explosion to one in 100 million.

But lately, outside experts are questioning whether safety margins are eroding. Federal investigators are trying to assess the overall safety of the plant, which employs 3,300 people, amid troubling safety snafus and what employees call an atmosphere of intimidation.

Energy Department officials acknowledge that the plant has fallen behind schedule on reliability testing of weapons. Long delays have occurred in decommissioning thousands of surplus warheads. They also concede the plant has maintenance problems and has violated safety procedures. But they insist there is virtually no danger of a conventional or nuclear explosion.

"Pantex is safe, no doubt," said Marty Schoenbauer, the acting chief of the Energy Department's nuclear weapons program.

Safety has improved in recent years, he said, thanks to better procedures. But outside experts, union officials and watchdog groups say the opposite is true -- that safety has regressed since 2000 as the most knowledgeable senior safety experts of the Cold War era retire and the plant's condition deteriorates. Energy Department Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman is investigating safety conditions at Pantex.

"You can't run a plant on glittering platitudes and generalities and call that a safety program," said Bob Alvarez, a former deputy assistant secretary of Energy and now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank. "A nuclear detonation accident is a low probability, but it is not incredible."

The backdrop to problems at Pantex is a growing concern that the Energy Department has mismanaged the nuclear weapons program. Last year, the Defense Department bluntly said that it had lost confidence in the Energy Department, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman has acknowledged.

"We have constraints," Bodman said in an interview, conceding the department hasn't met all of its commitments to the Pentagon. Last month, he fired the head of the nuclear weapons administration.

Conditions at Pantex began deteriorating at the end of the Cold War in 1989, when federal managers started starving the plant of funds. Billions of dollars were instead funneled into nuclear weapons laboratories, giving scientists new supercomputer centers, powerful lasers and physics instruments.

By about 2000, the leaks in Pantex's roof were so bad that workers had to cover bombs with plastic when it rained. In summer 2004, a power overload tripped transformers, causing a plant-wide blackout. Last July, another electrical failure occurred when rats gnawed through wiring, according to weekly safety reports. And in August, a storm swept over the plant that left standing puddles in nuclear production areas.

Although such conditions don't necessarily lead to accidents, the Energy Department has levied fines totaling nearly $234,000 against the contractor that operates Pantex, BWX Technologies Inc., for safety violations.

In one case, involving the disassembly of a missile warhead, technicians improperly used red vinyl tape to secure a crack in the high explosives surrounding the plutonium sphere of the hydrogen bomb. The use of the tape itself was not faulted, but technicians misread engineering instructions and caused an even bigger crack.

Federal safety inspectors found that the flawed operation "increased the opportunities for dropping all or part of the explosive during handling and hence increased the potential for a violent reaction," a finding that ran against assurances such a detonation was virtually impossible.

In the second case, technicians were extracting an assembly of high explosives and plutonium from the casing of a different missile warhead for servicing. Using a jackscrew to apply several thousand pounds of force to the explosives, technicians exceeded the allowable loads and over a three-day period violated strict safety protocols.

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