Wednesday, October 24, 2012

NNSA's Safety Culture: Does It Cost Too Much?

The 24th Annual "Nuclear Weapons Complex Waste Management & Cleanup Decision Makers’ Forum" took place recently, (October 15-18, 2012), in Jacksonville, Florida. The keynote address was presented by Peter Winokur, Chairman, Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB). A summary of Winokur's address, entitled "DNFSB, DOE and the Contractors: Roles, Responsibilities, and the Road Ahead", follows:

Is the DOE defense nuclear facilities complex safer now than when the Board commenced operations in the late 1980's? Yes! ... However, we cannot ignore current and emerging challenges ... and the federal commitment to protect the health and safety of workers and the public. Past success is a poor reason to decide to lessen present safeguards ... and giving up now on any of the elements of success would be foolish.

History teaches us that organizations have responded to budgetary pressures by accepting lower standards in their daily operations, especially safety, maintenance, and training; viz., often, by allowing their safety culture to degrade.

Beset by budgetary stringencies, DOE is concerned that it has become too risk-adverse and that its safety strategies have become too burdensome. DOE seems to be signaling that it is now willing to accept more risk. Moreover, DOE has also failed to learn important recent lessons and to implement related corrective actions on major design and construction projects.

Apropos of which, there is an old Chinese proverb: to know the road ahead, ask about the experiences of those who have arrived along that road.

In particular, history teaches that a broken safety culture has all too often led to serious accidents:
(For each of the following six events, descriptive material from Wikipedia has been added.)

1) Tokai-mura criticality accident

    In 1999 three workers received high doses of radiation in a small Japanese plant preparing fuel for an experimental reactor. Two of these workers died from their exposure. The accident was caused by concentrating excessive amounts of enriched uranium (~20% U235), leading to a criticality excursion (a limited uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction), which continued intermittently for 20 hours.

    A total of 119 people received a radiation dose over 1 mSv from the accident. Three operators' doses were above all permissible limits and two of the doses proved to be fatal. The cause of the accident was "human error and serious breaches of safety principles", according to IAEA.

2) Davis-Besse NPS

    Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station is a nuclear power plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio. It has a single pressurized water reactor, also known as a light water reactor. As of 2011, it was being operated by the FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company subsidiary of FirstEnergy Corp.

    On March 5, 2002, maintenance workers discovered that corrosion had eaten a football-sized hole into the reactor vessel head at the Davis-Besse plant. Although the corrosion did not lead to an accident, this was considered to be a serious nuclear safety incident. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission kept Davis-Besse shut down until March 2004, so that FirstEnergy was able to perform all the necessary maintenance for safe operations. The NRC imposed its largest fine ever -- more than $5 million -- against FirstEnergy for the actions that led to the corrosion. The company paid an additional $28 million in fines under a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

    According to the NRC, Davis-Besse has been the source of two of the top five most dangerous nuclear incidents in the United States since 1979.

3) NASA's two space shuttle disasters

    The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986, when the spacecraft broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. Disintegration of the vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed, allowing pressurized hot gas from within the solid rocket motor to impinge upon the adjacent hardware and external fuel tank. This led to the structural failure of the external tank, and aerodynamic forces then broke up the orbiter. The O-ring had been previously identified as a vulnerable component, but engineers who had sounded the alarm were ignored by management.

    The Space Shuttle Columbia disaster occurred on February 1, 2003, when the spacecraft broke up during reentry into the atmosphere, resulting in the death of all seven crew members. The loss of Columbia was a result of damage sustained during launch when a piece of foam insulation broke off from the external fuel tank. The debris struck the leading edge of the left wing, damaging the Shuttle's thermal protection system, which shields the vehicle from the intense heat generated during reentry. It had long been recognized that foam shed during launch could jeopardize the integrity of the heat shield, but this had been discounted by management as an unlikely event.

4) BP Texas City Oil refinery disaster

    On March 23, 2005, a fire and explosion occurred at BP's Texas City Refinery in Texas City, Texas, killing 15 workers and injuring more than 170 others. BP was charged with criminal violations of federal environmental laws, and has been subject to lawsuits from the victims' families. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration slapped BP with a then-record fine for hundreds of safety violations, and subsequently imposed an even larger fine after claiming that BP had failed to implement safety improvements following the disaster.

5) Deepwater Horizon disaster

    The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico flowed unabated for three months in 2010, and is the largest marine spill in the history of the petroleum industry. It stemmed from a sea-floor oil gusher caused by the 20 April 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. The rig explosion killed 11 men working on the platform and injured 17 others. On 15 July 2010, the gushing wellhead was capped, after it had released about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil. The platform was owned by Transocean, and operated for BP. Both transocean and BP have been heavily criticized for their failure to foresee, and to prepare for such an accident.

6) Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster

    The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster encompassed a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, and releases of radioactive material at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. The nuclear disaster was caused by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011, and is the largest such event since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

    It has been accepted by Power Plant authorities that the safeguards in place prior to the disaster were inadequate; i.e., in view of the fact that the reactor complex had been sited in an area where more than one devastating tsunami had occurred during the last ~500 years.

Winokur concluded his talk by pointing out that:

a) Even under severe budget constraints, DOE must continue to ensure that its priorities are well-balanced between mission and safety concerns.

b) DOE's current successful safety strategies have been developed with effort over many years and must not now be cast aside or downgraded.

c) Design basis accidents and beyond design basis accidents have already been analyzed extensively and should now be treated as real and imminent threats.

For more on this topic, see my blogpost of July 14, 2012 entitled "DNFSB Disagrees with NNSA Analysis"; also, the blogpost of Februrary 27, 2012 entitled "NRS Studies NNSA and its Nuke labs."

Friday, October 12, 2012

DOE/NNSA Assigns New Money to Nukish R&D

In the wake of the privatization of management contracts at the two senior US nuclear weapons laboratories, (Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2006, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory  in 2007, both during the G W Bush Administration) Department Of Energy's efforts to obtain more bang for its research buck is being thwarted. As a measure of the size of this problem, the National Research Council warned in a recent report that both the quantity and quality of research being conducted at the nuclear weapons labs has declined since the advent of privatization. (See: NRC report dated April 18, 2012 entitled "Review of the Quality of the Management and of the Science and Engineering Research at the DOE’s National Security Laboratories.")

It is unclear to NRC whether fault lies in the structure of the present management contracts, whether it is inherent in the for-profit management construct, as applied to the nuclear weapons labs, or if it is to be laid entirely at the feet of DOE and/or its daughter agency the National Nuclear Security Administration. Certainly, in their report, NRC revisited some of the complaints made by interested parties about DOE/NNSA micromanagement and mismanagement. But, these complaints are not new, and have been heard since DOE's founding during the Carter Administration, and since NNSA's founding during the Clinton Administration. Indeed, DOE was founded in order to correct management problems thought to exist in ERDA, its predecessor agency, and NNSA was founded in order to correct suspected management problems in DOE.

More specifically, those in the know assert that there has been a recent decrease at the labs in the amount of work supported by institutional funds redirected from day-to-day weapons work to research performed in support of the weapons program; i.e., so-called programmatic research. Prior to 2006, these funds had been redirected at the discretion of low-level technical management, and were expended in addition to Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) money, awarded through a competitive process and earmarked specifically for R&D work, not all of which was programmatic. Today, LDRD money continues to be supplied for this purpose by DOE to its nuclear weapons labs, but NRC considers that this is insufficient. Discretionary funds are no longer available to weapons research since they are being absorbed by out-sized management salaries and bonuses; e.g., to the tune of ~$70 million each, at LANL and LLNL.

In trying to overcome this perceived short-fall in discretionary funding for nuclear weapons research, the DOE has adopted a strategy of awarding research dollars directly to individuals; usually, ones who are either already employed at a nuclear weapons lab, or who work at an institution of higher learning where programmatic research is being conducted under contract. Thus, DOE is attempting to intervene in a faltering research process by "reaching over the heads" of its for-profit managers at the nuclear weapons labs. (See: DOE Press Release dated Sept 20, 2012, announcing "NNSA, DOE Office of Science Award $14M in Research Grants," available at: and

In any case, more money is going again into nuclear weapons R&D. Clearly, this is advantageous for the nuclear weapons industry, and for its present economic engine, the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program. It is the SSMP which produces demand pull for ever more information about the operation of nuclear weapons. Thus, in the absence of nuclear weapons explosive testing, the USA has come to lead the world in the development of the means to test nuclear weapons indirectly via computer simulation, and indirectly via laboratory scale tests of related weapons components and concepts. Whether this work constitutes a breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty must be a matter for government lawyers to decide.