Texas Nuclear Weapon Facility Under Scrutiny

In a letter sent last week to Department of Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog, cited a number of “serious safety problems” at Pantex, a nuclear weapons assembly facility near Amarillo, Texas, run by BWX Technologies. The source of their information was an anonymous letter from a group of Pantex whistleblowers who claim to have a combined 189 years of experience at the plant.

The employees’ letter contained a slew of complaints: degraded conditions, production pressures that create an environment where “risks are not completely understood and considered,” dangerously long hours for engineers and other employees, organizational oversight failures, and a “distracted” group of senior executives.

In their own letter to the DOE, POGO said they’ve confirmed “a number of the problems raised in the letter, including that there is widespread fatigue and overworking of production technicians who work on the warheads. As you know, safety at Pantex is paramount in the nuclear weapons complex because it is responsible for assembling and disassembling nuclear weapons.”

POGO also told the energy secretary the “excessive work hours are resulting from pressure by Pantex operator BWXT and the National Nuclear Security Administration to meet unrealistic production goals given the size of the workforce. In 2007, the disassembly production goals will increase by 50 percent. This is a recipe for disaster.”

There have been a number of safety issues during the past few years that have recently come to light. In 2004, a crack was found in a 1200-kiloton W56 warhead that was being disassembled. Technicians at Pantex attempted to repair the high explosive in haphazard fashion, resulting in a $124,000 fine for safety violations.

In March 2005, there was another potentially dangerous event that occurred during the disassembly of a different W56 warhead. Technicians were found to be using a defective tool. This past November, the DOE fined Pantex $110,000 for violations related to this incident–18 months after the fact. In assessing the fine, the DOE also revealed that an accidental nuclear detonation was a real possibility in this case.

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