SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Weapons labs hit for poor oversight of their explosives
San Francisco Chronicle


June 29, 2006

Tons of chemical explosives are improperly monitored at two nuclear weapons laboratories in New Mexico and, as a result, may be at risk of theft, according to a federal audit released this week.

The explosives may also be unsafe because neither of the labs - Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories - routinely checks their "stability and safety characteristics," the U.S. Energy Department's inspector general said in the report.




During a federal inspection, Sandia officials "could not account for at least 410 items, including detonators, rocket motors, shaped explosives and bulk explosive powders," the report said. In addition, that lab's inventory system lacked records for about 190,000 pounds of explosive propellant used in 39 rocket motors.

The report said the labs, ironically, don't have a use for many of the explosives, yet officials hang on to them "because they were difficult to obtain," said the report, which was released Tuesday.

In that regard, Los Alamos has "accumulated significant amounts of high explosive materials that were unlikely to be used for current or future missions."

For example, the report said, inspectors identified 63 anti-personnel rockets that were acquired by the laboratory in 1986, each of which still contains enough propellant to fly for several miles. Two decades later, and a decade after their original experimental roles ended, the lab is hanging on to the items because they are "almost like gold," the report quotes a Los Alamos official as saying.

Until recently, Los Alamos was run by the University of California under contract to the Energy Department; this year, the lab was taken over by a consortium dominated by the University of California and Bechtel Corp. Sandia is managed by Lockheed Martin under contract to the Energy Department.

In his report, Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman noted a "sharp contrast" with operations at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, which has "developed and implemented a robust program for high explosive inventory control, accountability, reduction, and for testing the safety and stability of the explosives." The University of California runs Livermore lab under an Energy Department contract that is scheduled to expire in 2007.

In a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman that accompanies the report, Friedman indirectly scolded Sandia and Los Alamos by stressing that "the Livermore effort demonstrated that high explosives can be managed and controlled without adversely affecting mission performance."

In statements, officials at Los Alamos and Sandia insisted they are managing the explosives properly and safely. However, neither lab explicitly repudiated the inspector general's report.

In a statement, Sandia spokesperson Michael Padilla said "Sandia's top priorities are the safety of its employees, the public, and the protection of the environment and there is no reason to believe anyone's safety or the environment is at risk.

"All items mentioned in the ... report have been located and accounted for."

At the same time, Padilla added, "Sandia has made many improvements over the past year in its Explosive Inventory and Information System and the replacement of the inventory software with newer, robust, user-friendly software is under way."

"Sandia will continue to ensure that all non-nuclear high explosives are kept secure, stable and safe for use," he said.

In a statement, Los Alamos spokeswoman Kathy DeLucas said the lab's explosives management program meets standards set by the Energy Department. "Los Alamos maintains extensive physical security against theft or diversion of high explosives," she said.

Among other things, she said, "high explosives are stored or used only in locked buildings located within guarded and patrolled administratively controlled areas."

Responding to the report's charge that the labs hang onto explosives they don't need, DeLucas said that some high explosive materials "are unique and difficult to purchase in a timely way and at reasonable cost."


Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps Howard News Service,

Publish A Letter on SitNews
        Read Letters/Opinions

Contact the Editor

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska