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Report: Workers improperly secured broken nuclear weapon

Safety board faults lapses at Texas plant

From David de Sola

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Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board
Department of Energy

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Workers at a nuclear weapons plant in Texas improperly secured broken pieces of a highly explosive component by taping them together, which could have caused a "violent reaction," federal investigators report.

No one was hurt, the facility was not damaged and safe control of all components and materials was maintained during the incident January 8, according to news release from the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board investigated that incident, as well as several previous safety lapses at the Pantex Plant, the nation's sole nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility.

The workers were taking apart an aging nuclear weapon when they taped the broken pieces together.

In a separate incident in October, workers taking apart a W62 warhead accidentally drilled into its radioactive core. The facility was evacuated, and experts later found that no radiation had leaked from the warhead.

Safety board Chairman John Conway wrote a letter to Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham this week to summarize the board's findings regarding the January 8 incident.

Among them were:

• Employees did not perform an adequate safety analysis before attempting the procedure.

• Employees did not consult with the manufacturers of the explosives to determine the potential hazards when dealing with damaged explosives.

• Employees did not attempt the procedure in a practice run or demonstration before attempting it on the actual weapon. As a result, the task was not performed as it was intended.

• No experts who developed the taping procedure were present to supervise and watch for any potential problems.

According to Conway's letter, posted on the safety board's Web site, "potentially unacceptable consequences" could have ensued. The letter did not specify what might have happened had an explosion or detonation occurred.

In a written statement, Pantex acknowledged the incident and said it has halted work on the weapons system. A review of the incident will address the issues raised by the board, and a report will be sent to the Department of Energy.

The Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board could not be reached for comment.

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