These workers’ lives are endangered while contractors running nuclear weapons plants make millions via USA Today

A wrong turn of a valve at one of the country’s nuclear weapons laboratories unleashed an explosion that easily could have killed two workers.

The near catastrophe in August 2011 at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque lifted the roof of the building, separated a wall in two places and bent an exterior door 30 feet away. One worker was knocked to the floor; another narrowly missed getting hit with flying debris as a fire erupted. 

As the Department of Energy investigated over the next three years, the same lab — one of 10 nuclear weapons-related sites that contain radioactive materials in addition to the usual hazards found in industrial settings — had two more serious accidents, both blamed on insufficient safety protocols.


This wasn’t a rare outcome. Energy Department documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity make clear that the nation’s eight nuclear weapons labs and plants and two sites that support them remain dangerous places to work but their corporate managers often face relatively slight penalties after accidents. 

Workers have inhaled radioactive particles that pose lifetime cancer threats. Others received electrical shocks or were burned by acid or in fires. They have been splashed with toxic chemicals and cut by debris from exploding metal drums.


During a yearlong investigation built on a review of thousands of pages of records and interviews with dozens of current and former government officials and contractor employees, the Center for Public Integrity found:

• Private firms running these laboratories and plants each are paid $40,000 to $160,000 a day in profits alone, a total of more than $2 billion in the past 10 years.

But during that period, the Energy Department’s enforcement arm waived or significantly reduced 19 of 21 major fines that officials had said were justified because of safety lapses and other workplace misconduct. All told, they forgave $3.3 million of $7.3 million they said could have been imposed.

► Partial meltdown: California slams feds’ Santa Susana Field Lab cleanup plan
► Medical benefits: Former nuke workers worry about health compensation

• One reason fines are reduced is that federal rules governing Energy Department contractors do not allow the contractors to be fined if their profits were docked for the same infraction.

The department argues that this arrangement is still effective. But a review of payments to 10 contractors over a decade shows they earned on average 86% of their maximum potential profits, even though that decade was marked with persistent safety lapses.


Los Alamos National Laboratory, operated by a consortium of four contractors called Los Alamos National Security LLC, was fined $57 million. The government’s cleanup bill? Around $1.5 billion. 

• The frequency of serious accidents and incidents at these facilities has not diminished — as it has at most other industrial workplaces in America — and may have risen significantly.

The number of violation notices, letters, and consent orders sent to contractors after accidents and mishaps has more than doubled since 2013.


A November 2015 Department of Energy letter cited two incidents: a badly handled 2012 lithium-ion battery fire in Building 905, a 98,000-square-foot facility where explosives, neutron generators and batteries are tested; and the unexpected ignition of a detonator in a worker’s hand at one of its explosive sites in 2013.

► Oak Ridge: 8 workers exposed to radiation during secret project
► Carlsbad: N.M. radiation leak that contaminates 13 workers raises concerns

Together, these incidents encompassed four Severity Level I violations, considered a threat of death or serious injury, and two Severity Level II violations, short of serious injury but affecting an employee’s safety or health. 

Read more at These workers’ lives are endangered while contractors running nuclear weapons plants make millions 

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