Wednesday, February 21, 2007
By Ralph Vartabedian, The Los Angeles Times, Wednesday 21 February 2007
Amarillo, Texas - Electrical failures have shut down the plant. The roof has leaked. Decrepit machinery dates back more than 40 years. Safety lapses led inspectors to levy fines twice within two years. And employees, under deadline pressure, complain they often are worked past the point of exhaustion.
The rituals and procedures inside those cells are supposed to be as strict as any operating room, part of a safety culture that reduces any chance of an accidental nuclear explosion to one in 100 million.
But lately, outside experts are questioning whether those safety margins are eroding. Federal investigators are trying to assess the overall safety of the plant, which employs 3,300, amid troubling safety snafus and what employees call an atmosphere of intimidation.
Energy Department officials acknowledge that the plant has fallen behind schedule on reliability testing of weapons. Long delays have occurred in decommissioning thousands of surplus warheads to satisfy disarmament pacts. They also concede the plant has maintenance problems and has violated safety procedures. But they insist there is no danger of a conventional or nuclear explosion.
The backdrop to problems at Pantex is a growing concern that the Energy Department has mismanaged the nuclear weapons program. Last year, the Defense Department bluntly said that it had lost confidence in the Energy Department, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman has acknowledged.
Conditions at Pantex began deteriorating at the end of the Cold War in 1989, when federal managers started starving the plant of funds. Billions of dollars instead were funneled into nuclear weapons laboratories, giving scientists new supercomputer centers, powerful lasers and physics instruments.
By about 2000, the leaks in Pantex's roof were so bad that workers had to cover bombs with plastic when it rained. In summer 2004, a power overload tripped transformers, causing a plant wide blackout. In July, another electrical failure occurred when rats gnawed through wiring, according to weekly safety reports. And in August, a storm swept over the plant that left standing puddles in nuclear production areas.
Dan Swaim, BWXT president at Pantex [a partner of LANS, LLC, who runs LANL], acknowledged that both incidents broke safety rules and were unacceptable, but he said there was no risk of a disaster.
In an interview, Rowesome, who retired in 2004, said he did not want to alarm the public, but he believes Energy Department officials are so "overly confident" and "complacent" about safety that they are not alert to deteriorating safety conditions.
Meanwhile, Pantex has fallen behind schedule in performing critical surveillance tests required by laboratory scientists to certify the reliability of the bombs, Schoenbauer acknowledged. "That backlog has not affected the lab's ability to certify weapons," he said.
John Duncan, who until four years ago headed surveillance testing at Pantex for Sandia National Laboratory, agreed that testing problems at Pantex are undermining confidence in the stockpile. Even today, the certifications of nuclear weapons are being made with less certainty than scientists should have, Duncan and Levine said.
"I knew we were in trouble when I started attending meetings in Washington and was told to work better, faster, cheaper," said Duncan. "They started sending people to the plant with little weapons experience."
The Bush administration has ordered the plant to increase dismantlements by 50 percent this year.
Another task looming for Pantex is modernizing the W76 missile warhead used on the Trident submarine. Hundreds of W76 warheads will have to be disassembled and rebuilt with new parts. Swaim said the W76 program will begin on schedule later this year.
Although the jobs are sought after in Amarillo, an anonymous letter surfaced in November alleging that the plant was in serious disrepair, BWXT management was letting safety slip, and employees were forced to work more than 80 hours a week in some cases.
The stress of working with nuclear weapons has been exacerbated by an abusive management, according to Henry Bagwell, the former chief of the Metals Trade Council, the principal union at the plant. "They treat people badly," said Bagwell, who left last year after 24 years at the plant.
[Sound familiar, LANL people? Are you scared sh*tless, LLNL people? The Beast is coming for you next! Read the whole story by clicking on the title.
--Pat, the Dog]
"Pantex is safe, no doubt," said Marty Schoenbauer, the acting chief of the Energy Department's nuclear weapons program.
Followed shortly after by a bit of actual truth:
"You can't run a plant on glittering platitudes and generalities and call that a safety program," said Bob Alvarez, a former deputy assistant secretary of Energy and now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think tank.
It just goes to show you that anybody smart who finds himself in DOE, leaves.
It goes along with another choice phrase from the past... to be "rocky flattened".
Yes, going over to DOD would be risky, but does anyone at the labs enjoy the current situation? Almost anything would be better than our present f*cked-up scenario.
Do you think that DoD would give a "rat's ass" about the environmental issues in the NNSA complex?
I doubt it.
Q: "What did BWXT do in 2 years at Pantex that Mason & Hanger couldn't do in 40?"
A: "Make Mason & Hanger look good."
Has anyone noticed the new name for the group charged with making pits?
WCM-1.....We Can't Make 1
Q: "What did BWXT do in 2 years at Pantex that Mason & Hanger couldn't do in 40?"
A: "Make Mason & Hanger look good."
ok try this on for size...
Q: So what did LANS do in less than a year that UC couldn't do in 63?
A: Make UC look good...NOT!
This might warrant a top-level post.
Shawn Carpenter gets some satisfaction
(at least someone is getting some from the screwed-up state of our national labs these days)
(Our division computer security folks send these out - at least this one had some interesting news)
From SANS NewsBites February 16, 2007 Vol. 9, Num. 14
Sandia Analyst Wins Wrongful Termination Suit
(14 & 13 February 2007)
Shawn Carpenter, a former Sandia National Laboratories employee, has won
a US $4.3 million wrongful termination suit against Sandia. In 2002,
Carpenter began detecting attacks on the Sandia computer networks; he
alerted several government agencies, including Sandia, the FBI and the
Army Research Laboratory. Carpenter used "back-hacking" techniques to
trace the attacks back to their origins. Carpenter was fired in January
2005 for insubordination because he refused to comply with orders not
to disclose the attacks to anyone either inside or outside Sandia.
[Editor's Note (Honan): Sandia's approach brings a new meaning to
"security by obscurity", hide the problem and it will go away.
Unfortunately given the nature and numbers of attacks against key
government networks worldwide, ignoring the problem and not sharing
details with other agencies will NOT make the problem go away.
(Kreitner): A case like this makes you wonder just what percentage of
organizations whose systems have been compromised are successful at
containing that information. ]
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Lab Gets $4 Million Message on Security
Another black eye for New Mexico's national labs that seem so tolerant of lax security: A state district court jury in Albuquerque found that Sandia National Laboratories punished a gung-ho security worker.
Part of Shawn Carpenter's job as a security analyst was finding breaches in the lab's computer network, like a watchman checking for open windows.
Carpenter went out that window to trail hackers who had broken into Sandia's system. He found sensitive documents stolen from other national security-related sites. He testified that his bosses told him to stick to his job description. Carpenter testified that he shared the information with the FBI, and told his immediate supervisors he was working with an outside agency. Sandia officials got the full picture when the FBI contacted them.
Less than three months later, Sandia fired Carpenter in a process jurors found "malicious, willful, reckless, wanton, fraudulent or in bad faith." In addition to actual damages, the jury awarded Carpenter double the $2 million in punitive damages requested.
In the wake of the 9/11 Commission's findings that failure to "connect the dots" made terrorists' goals easier to achieve, the jury was angered by Sandia's "cavalier attitude about national security," according to the jury forewoman.
Carpenter's wife, a West Point graduate who had also worked at the lab before becoming a White House fellow, said she and Carpenter expected others to be vigilant against national security threats and could expect no less of themselves. "... If other citizens don't do this, it's the beginning of the end for our country."
The verdict in this trial should mark the beginning of lab policy more attuned to the bigger picture than its own turf.
Notice the problem with Pantex. Chronic underfunding at the hands of the US Congress. See a pattern?
Nobody is going to save LANL. We have to save it ourselves. We have the power to do it ... once we stop attacking each other. The power of the LANL staff is unlimited, if we join together.
I would say that DOD does a far better job at overseeing its national lab - MIT run Lincoln Laboratory (www.ll.mit.edu) - which does as much high level security work as LANL, but does not seem to have the same problems with security incidents.
Also look at NASA's JPL - run by CalTech - as another example of a successful contractor operated national lab. About 20% of JPL's work is classified work for DOD.
Notice that the DoD lab contractors (allegedly successful, or at least not judged by Congress to be security sieves like LANL) are not-for-profit entities, namely, MIT and Caltech (JPL), rather than a for-profit defense contractor (like Bechtel, BXWT, LockMart, etc.).
Lincoln is a great place, but not a research place on the level of LANL. You do engineering at Lincoln, and a very particular kind of engineering. Most of you folks would find it pretty boring.
What's impressive is that NNSA can't seem to get anything right. It can't do science, but it also can't do national, or nuclear, or security. I guess it's an agency, but for what or who, is anyone's guess.
Either the NNSA will die, or science at NNSA labs will die. I wonder if anyone in DC is listening or cares. I have a guess ... after all, we have lots of science labs. What's the loss of one going to count?
It was a knee-jerk reaction under Richardson's DOE to "do something" to show they were concerned about security.
Unfortunately, even the NNSA could not prevent, with 100% certainty, *all* potential security breaches.
Humans are humans. As such, no human, even trusted ones who have high security clearances, are going to either make mistakes...or, they will turn to *intentional* acts of stealing or misusing classified information.
The fact is that no entity, if they are involved in working with classified information, can guarantee there will never be a compromise of that information. There is *always* a level of "acepted risk" associated with classified operations. LANL *could* impose requirements that would result in "zero" risk...but, they wouldn't get any work done, either.
It's too bad that for whatever reason, LANL is held to higher levels of expectation and standards when it comes to balancing security with operations.
The vultures who want nothing more than the complete and utter destruction of LANL will not be happy until that takes place. Unfortunately, there will be many many losers when that happens...from the nuclear detonation-like negative economic impact to Northern NM to national security.
A final word -- to all you here who do nothing but bitch and moan about LANL, you are killing the goose laying all those golden eggs. I've seen this happen before in other facilities. My advice is to get on board to make it better rather than be part of the killing by a million pinpricks.
Come up with a plan to fix that, and you will find overwhelming support from LANL staff.