December 12, 2006

Heard this on the Rachel Maddow Show on my local AAR station.

LA Times: (reg req.):

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 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.

[..]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. Read on...

Contemplate that for a moment: EXCESSIVE FORCE DISASSEMBLING A NUCLEAR BOMB. Now add unhappy employees working 80+ hours a week. This is a recipe for disaster if I've ever heard one.

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