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2018 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

Nuclear Negligence

 

About the Project

The Center for Public Integrity’s Nuclear Negligence investigation revealed in a series of articles that the production of U.S. nuclear weapons has been persistently undermined by little-known safety lapses over the past eight years that endangered workers and nearby communities and provoked alarm among top officials in Washington, D.C.

Due to these safety problems, the nation’s sole facility for monitoring or producing the plutonium cores of America’s warheads was quietly shut for years beginning in 2013. Other government-funded nuclear labs, we discovered, have been highly dangerous workplaces, with employees regularly injured by explosions, shocks, burns, and the avoidable inhalation of radioactive and carcinogenic particles during their nuclear weapons-related work. The federal contractors employed to run these labs were nonetheless rewarded by the government with large profits and few penalties.

Little was said publicly about these safety lapses until the Center’s team of reporters revealed the circumstances and details in a series of articles that ultimately appeared in more than 100 news outlets.Our revelations are more salient and alarming because of the Trump administration’s plans to ramp up production of nuclear weapons at these sites in coming years – most of them run by the same contractors responsible for multiple problems and shutdowns.

In the series’ wake, the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a major safety offender, announced his resignation. The head of the government’s inspection office there resigned. The newly appointed head of a nuclear weapons safety oversight agency, who had called for its dissolution in a bid to gain President Trump’s approval, resigned, and his proposal was shelved. A government effort to obstruct access to the safety reports used in our investigation was withdrawn after we wrote about it. Editorials about our articles were published in The Washington Post and other newspapers.

The nature of this work – the production of nuclear weapons – is mostly considered a national security secret. As a result, we had to spend hundreds of hours studying technical publications, contracts, and weapons site maps, and to obtain and review internal government documents to analyze the scope of the safety problems. We built a database showing the timing, places, and details of infractions, penalties, mitigation efforts and waivers, bonuses paid, and fees withheld.

We also combed congressional testimony; tracked down and interviewed often-recalcitrant workers and ex-workers at the sites; and consulted multiple health and safety experts. We read the lawsuits of injured workers and spoke to them about their experiences. We tracked down dozens of current and former officials and witnesses to key accidents, who helped us put flesh on spare official depictions of accidents, so they would have meaning for readers.

This meticulous reporting allowed us to see – and to describe in compelling terms – how nuclear weapons workers were placed under unrelenting production pressures, how supervisors repeatedly pushed forward despite rules violations and well-understood risks, and how accidents occurred and recurred amid weak federal oversight while contractors reaped the maximum financial benefits available.