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Center For Public Integrity Uncovers Safety Hazards At Government Nuclear Labs


Some of the government's most critical nuclear work happens at 10 weapons labs across the country. At those labs, employees suffer from explosions, shocks and burns. They're exposed to dangerous levels of radioactive dust. And this has been going on for years. That's the finding of a year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity. Jeff Smith is the lead editor of the series "Nuclear Negligence" and joins us now in the studio. Welcome.

JEFF SMITH: Thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You've been publishing the results of this investigation over the last several days. And there are so many shocking stories that it is hard to know where to begin. So let's start with the article you published today. The headline says "More Than 30 Nuclear Experts Inhale Uranium After Radiation Alarms At A Weapons Site Are Switched Off." What happened?

SMITH: So in April and May of 2014 a group of scientists from around the country and the United Kingdom gathered at the Nevada test site facility where they conducted scientific experiments related to the nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. They had a machine there called Godiva. And that machine was meant to generate bursts of radiation. They were behind schedule in operating this machine, and they were rushing to get certain experiments done.

They operated it without a shroud called a top hat, which was meant to contain leakage of radiation. And they were annoyed by the radiation alarms, so they switched them off. And that switched off the ventilation system. And as a result, particles of highly enriched uranium leaked around the room. And they leaked into an anteroom where they gathered before and after the experiments.

SHAPIRO: And you write that the scientists didn't even find out that they had been exposed to this radiation until months later.

SMITH: Because the alarms were switched off, they didn't really know about it. The first inkling that there had been this contamination didn't come for more than a month.

SHAPIRO: How does this particular failing fit into the larger pattern that you found at these nuclear sites across the country over many years?

SMITH: We found that it was one among many safety lapses. And also that the contractor didn't really suffer any serious consequences in the aftermath. All their expenses are covered routinely under their contract. These are privately run, government-owned laboratories.

SHAPIRO: So this is a crucial point. We're talking about private companies that are doing work on behalf of the government. And the government is paying these contracting companies.

SMITH: Right. And they cover all their expenses, and then they pay them a profit. And in each year, we found - not just at Nevada, but at the other sites we examined where there had been safety lapses as egregious as this one, we found that they earned between 86 and 93 percent of the maximum profit allowed no matter how many safety lapses they'd had during the period that we studied.

SHAPIRO: Why doesn't the government do a better job at holding these companies accountable for their safety lapses?

SMITH: So it's interesting. Congress sets a ceiling on the number of employees at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, which does the oversight and administers the funding of these contractors. And they don't have enough personnel to do it. Their director has said this publicly. The reason that Congress sets the limit where it does, we're told, is under pressure from the contractors, which don't like the oversight. So they...

SHAPIRO: So the contractors are effectively controlling their overseers.

SMITH: Yes. And they are also self-reporting their accidents.

SHAPIRO: You reached out to some of these companies - Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, Bechtel. For the most part, they didn't reply to your interview requests.

SMITH: Yes. The directors of the three weapons labs all declined to talk to us. The National Nuclear Security Administration provided some information, but mostly they asked us to submit Freedom of Information Act requests for the information that we were seeking. The companies say that they do important work, that we're not paying enough attention to the value of the work that they perform, but we were concentrating in our investigation on the dangers to the workers that were doing this work.

SHAPIRO: The lapses have been so severe that in some cases labs have actually been shut down. How does that affect the U.S. nuclear program?

SMITH: You're referring to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. A key part of that laboratory was shut down in 2013 following a nearly disastrous accident when people put plutonium rods too close together and...

SHAPIRO: Just to take a photograph.

SMITH: To take a photograph. And it nearly prompted a nuclear chain reaction. So what happened was officials in Washington called up the lab director and said, we really think that you're not well-prepared to prevent that kind of accident from occurring. We want you to shut down that part of the laboratory. And for the most part, over the last four years, that part of the laboratory has been shuttered. That laboratory does two unique things. One is it tests warheads that are in the stockpile now. And secondly, it makes new plutonium parts for new warheads. And neither of those activities could occur in the last four years because it was shut.

SHAPIRO: That's Jeff Smith of the Center for Public Integrity on the year-long investigation "Nuclear Negligence." Thanks for coming in.

SMITH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ED SHEERAN SONG, "I SEE FIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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