Most scientists were not told of risks for months after 2014 incident; investigation shows more mishaps at Nevada and New Mexico nuclear sites
The government scientists didn’t know they were breathing in radioactive uranium at the time it was happening. In fact, most didn’t learn about their exposure for months, long after they returned home from the nuclear weapons research center where they had inhaled it.
The entire event was characterized by sloppiness, according to a quiet federal investigation, with multiple warnings issued and ignored in advance, and new episodes of contamination allowed to occur afterward. All of this transpired without public notice by the center.
Here’s how it happened: In April and May 2014, an elite group of 97 nuclear researchers from as far away as the U.K. gathered in a remote corner of Nye County, Nev., at the historic site where the U.S. had exploded hundreds of its nuclear weapons. With nuclear bomb testing ended, the scientists were using a device they called Godiva at the National Criticality Experiments Research Center to test nuclear pulses on a smaller and supposedly safe scale.
But as the technicians prepared for their experiments that spring—under significant pressure to clear a major backlog of work and to operate the machine at what a report called Godiva’s “upper energy range”—they committed several grievous errors, according to government reports.
The machine had been moved to Nevada nine years earlier from Los Alamos, N.M. But a shroud, descriptively called Top Hat, which should have covered the machine and prevented the escape of any loose radioactive particles, was not reinstalled when it was reassembled in 2012.
On June 16, 2014, a month after the experiments were completed, technicians doing routine tests made an alarming discovery—radioactive particles were in the anteroom. They then checked the room holding Godiva, and found radiation 20 times more intense there. The Nevada site’s managers, who work for a group of private, profit-making contractors—like most U.S. nuclear weapons personnel—ordered the rooms decontaminated. But they didn’t immediately check exposures among the scientists and researchers who had gathered for the tests, many of whom had already gone back to their own labs.
None had any clue about the mishap until two months after the experiments, on July 17, when one of them—a researcher from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory nuclear weapons lab in California—got the results from his routine radiation monitoring. His urine tested positive for exposure to enriched uranium particles.
National Security Technologies,, LLC (NSTec), the lead contractor that runs the Nevada site, subsequently collected urine specimens from its own workers who’d been in the room with Godiva during the experiments. It discovered three of its technicians also had inhaled highly-enriched uranium.
News of trouble spread–but only among the scientists and their bosses, who were accustomed to a shroud of official secrecy covering their work. No public announcement was made. According to an initial U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) investigative report dated April 28, 2015, calls eventually went out to test the 97 people present for the Godiva experiments. But for reasons that remain unclear the testing went very slowly, and not until 2016 did the DoE state that 31 were discovered to have inhaled uranium.