WASHINGTON – An accident that occurred last year as a decades-old nuclear warhead was being dismantled at the government’s Pantex facility near Amarillo could have caused the device to detonate, a nonprofit organization charged Thursday.
The Project on Government Oversight watchdog group said the “near miss,” which led the Energy Department to fine the plant’s operator $110,000, was caused in part by technicians at the plant being required to work up to 72 hours per week.
The Pantex facility, 17 miles northeast of Amarillo in the Panhandle, is the country’s only factory for assembling and disassembling nuclear weapons.
The organization said it was told by unidentified experts “knowledgeable about this event” that the accident, in which an unsafe amount of pressure was applied to the warhead, could have caused it to explode.
The group also released an anonymous letter, purportedly sent by Pantex employees, warning that long hours and efforts to increase output were causing dangerous conditions in the plant.
“Most production technicians work five 10-hour days, plus weekends,” the letter states. “Our safety analysts get pounded on a daily basis to support the production schedule and are expected at times to work around-the-clock.
“And this is BEFORE we take the insane step of trying to complete work on 50 percent more units this fiscal year,” it says.
Julianne Smith, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department, which owns Pantex, declined to respond to safety complaints outlined in a letter from the watchdog group’s executive director, Danielle Brian, to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.
However, records show that the department last month fined BWX Technologies Inc., the company that operates Pantex under a contract with the department, $110,000 for the accident and for another incident involving the same warhead.
In a letter to Dan Swaim, BWX general manager of the plant, the Energy Department said the company had “significantly delayed” disclosing the incidents and then submitted a “factually inaccurate and incomplete” report.
The letter, signed by Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, didn’t say the incidents could have caused a nuclear detonation, or what kind of warhead was being dismantled when they occurred.
Brooks’ letter said that during three separate attempts to dismantle the warhead in March and April, workers applied too much pressure, and a safety mechanism failed to work. This caused a part of the warhead to “separate . . . at an unanticipated location,” a summary of violations said.
When a mechanism that is part of the disassembly equipment fails to prevent application of too much pressure, Energy Department regulations require that a new or different device be used, the summary states.
However, “due to expediency/convenience,” the same device was used the next day in a second attempt to disassemble the warhead.
Project on Government Oversight investigator Peter Stockton, a former Energy Department official, said the weapon was a W-56 warhead, with a yield of 1,200 kilotons, 100 times the destructive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
He said W-56 warheads were first put in service in 1965 on Minuteman missiles and don’t have the safety features of more recent models that protect against detonation.
In a two-paragraph statement, BWX said it “takes seriously any employee concerns about safe operations” and was comparing statements in the anonymous letter “with the reality of day-to-day work.”
BWX spokeswoman Erin Ritter declined to comment. By Jeff Nesmith