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Nuclear lab shutdown endangers US arsenal

An extended shutdown of the nation’s only scientific laboratory for producing and testing the plutonium cores for its nuclear weapons has taken a toll on America’s arsenal, with key work postponed and delays looming in the production of components for new nuclear warheads, according to government documents and officials.

The unique research and production facility is located at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico, the birthplace of the U.S. atomic arsenal. The lab’s director ordered the shutdown in 2013 after the Washington, D.C., official in charge of America’s warhead production expressed worries that the facility was ill-equipped to prevent an accident that would kill its workers and potentially others nearby.

Parts of the facility began renewed operations last year, but with only partial success. And workers there last year were still violating safety rules for handling plutonium, the unstable man-made metal that serves as the sparkplug of the thermonuclear explosions that American bombs are designed to create.

Los Alamos’ persistent shortcomings in plutonium safety have been cited in more than 40 reports by government oversight agencies, teams of nuclear safety experts and the lab’s own employees over the past 11 years. Some of these reports say that safety takes a back seat to meeting specific goals for nuclear warhead maintenance and production by private contractors running the labs. Nuclear workers and experts say the contractors have been chasing lucrative government bonuses tied to those goals.

With key work at Los Alamos deferred due to safety problems, officials and experts say the United States risks falling behind on an ambitious $1 trillion update of its nuclear arsenal, which former President Barack Obama supported and President Donald Trump has said he wants to “greatly strengthen and expand.”

During the hiatus, Los Alamos has had to forego 29 planned tests of the safety and reliability of plutonium cores in warheads now deployed atop U.S. submarine-launched and land-based missiles and in bombs carried by aircraft. The facility also hasn’t been able to make new plutonium cores to replace those regularly withdrawn from the nuclear arsenal for testing or to be fit into warheads, which are being modernized for those missiles and bombers at a projected cost of billions of dollars.

“The laboratory shut down an important facility doing important work,” said James McConnell, the associate administrator for safety, infrastructure and operations at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department, in a recent interview at the agency’s Washington headquarters. “What we didn’t have was the quality program that we want.”

Ernest Moniz, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist who served almost four years as Obama’s energy secretary, said in a separate interview that “we were obviously quite concerned about” the shutdown at Los Alamos. Moniz said he considered the situation there a “mess” and the testing interruption “significant.”

“I don’t think it has, at this stage, in any way seriously compromised” the nuclear arsenal, Moniz said. But he added that it was still his conviction that “obviously we’ve got to get back to that” work as soon as possible. A mock plutonium core was made at Los Alamos last year in a demonstration timed to coincide with a visit by Ashton Carter, then secretary of defense.

At a public hearing in Santa Fe on June 7, McConnell said that while Los Alamos is making progress, it is still unable to resolve the safety issue that provoked its shutdown four years ago, namely an acute shortage of engineers who are trained in keeping the plutonium at the facility from becoming “critical” and fissioning uncontrollably. “They’re not where we need them yet,” he said of the lab and its managers.

A February report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent safety advisory group chartered by Congress, detailed the magnitude of the gap. It said Los Alamos needs 27 fully qualified safety engineers specialized in keeping the plutonium for fissioning out of control. The lab has 10.

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The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C.