How we got this story
In the summer of 2011, Los Alamos National Laboratory presented a happy self-portrait to the public. Its news releases bragged of promotions, awards, pacts with neighboring Native American tribes and great feats of science that spilled from the design of the nation’s nuclear weapons.
But that year something alarming happened at Los Alamos that the lab kept quiet. A pair of workers with cavalier attitudes nearly doomed a room full of colleagues by stuffing so much plutonium into a small space that they came close to triggering an accidental nuclear chain reaction, all to get some photos.
Only a few spare documents describing the incident are readily found in the public domain. Fewer still explain what consequences the carelessness at Los Alamos has had for the Department of Energy and its national security mission. But when the Center for Public Integrity learned of the near-nuclear mishap and sensed its broader impact, it decided to dig deeper.
Its main finding: The Los Alamos contractor’s inattention to safety crimped critical aspects of nuclear weapons-related work for so long that it would make a no-nukes protester envious. In addition, ample evidence turned up that even in modern times the nation’s premier nuclear weapons labs and plants are a dangerous place to work: Workers are seriously injured by explosions, shocks, burns, falls and the inhalation of radioactive dust. And yet the program established by the Department of Energy to guarantee the safety of its workers appears to have made little to no headway in reducing those risks, as the government itself admits.
If you are a current or former employee of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department, or one of its contractors, and you know of events, incidents, actions, decisions, conditions or documents worthy of our attention, please contact Patrick Malone (PGP fingerprint: 3AD5 A969 C8CD 14B2 D917 4BEF EB43 ED01 ACFB 7FEE), R. Jeffrey Smith (D27F C3FA 32EE 2938 6080 47C5 C50E 1E64 CF5D 64F1) or use the Center’s SecureDrop.
Few of the underlying federal reports on safety incidents, many of which are highly critical of contractors but unclassified, had been openly published. But after we got ahold of them, we built two databases listing the profits paid annually by the Energy Department to nuclear weapons contractors and another listing all enforcement actions taken by the DOE following safety and security incidents. The spreadsheets displayed, for 10 nuclear weapons sites over 10 years, the key data in all these communications, including dates and places, infractions, penalties, mitigation and waivers, bonuses paid, and fees withheld. From this we were able to see the bigger picture – the safety trends, the weakness of enforcement, the generosity of profit awards.
Our spreadsheet showed us, for example, the billions of dollars the 10 contractors had earned in 10 years. But we had to read their contracts to determine how these were calculated. We also studied the voluminous performance reports the DOE sent its contractors and saw how little of their profit depended on safety and security performance. We read dozens of reports by others – including auditors – to get their take on DOE supervision of the labs, shortages in oversight manpower, and historical weaknesses in DOE management. We also read through congressional testimony, including public statements by 17 directors of the nation’s nuclear labs, who argued vociferously that the profit award system did not motivate them to do better work.
We talked to workers at the plants and labs, and to health and safety experts, including five certified health physicists. We read the lawsuits of the injured workers who breathed in radiation. We also talked with dozens of government officials. When the government and the contractors learned the Center had asked some federal employees to record their views for a radio program, the employees were instructed by their superiors to take no further calls from our reporters. Some of those we interviewed asked us to shield their identities, while others felt strongly enough to allow their names to be used.
And in most cases, the Energy Department forced us to request the specific documents we sought under the Freedom of Information Act instead of just turning them over. In one of the ten FOIA cases that eventually fed material into this series, the Center had to press its demand for the documents in the capital’s federal district court, and the case still has not been fully resolved more than two and a half years after our initial FOIA request.
Directors of five nuclear sites, whose roles are equal parts operation management and business development for their corporate employers, universally rejected invitations to be interviewed. So did the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the semi-autonomous arm of the Energy Department responsible for the nuclear weapon program. The contractors instead asked us to direct all our questions to the NNSA, underscoring the protective relationship between the firms and the Washington agency assigned to oversee their work.
From all of this a picture emerged of workers under production pressures, of supervisors who pushed work forward despite considerable risks; and of accidents that occurred and recurred while contractors reaped most of the financial rewards they had been offered, year after year.