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To hell with safety equipment / SurprizingFacts


Illustration by Joanna Eberts

Unfortunately, NucInc is not a new startup in the field of high nuclear technology, which Tomorrow will give us free electricity for all planned electric cars. This is a reduction from nuclear incidents or nuclear incidents that have happened too often over the past decade to the ocean.

I will ask nervous and highly sensitive to not open, but if you are ready for the nuclear apocalypse to begin any minute Not from a nuclear strike, but according to ordinary human stupidity, then we ask for mercy under the law.

Recently in the journal Science Magazine came two of a series of articles published by the Center for Public Integrity. In total, the series contains five large articles that openly discuss modern security issues at US nuclear facilities. Three of them today, I will try to squeeze into one and, perhaps, answer the question: how did the citadel of technology come to the stage that it can not actually competently handle radioactive / fissile materials?

Historical reference

The Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is one of the sixteen national laboratories of the US Department of Energy. In the time of the Manhattan project, it was built in the remote mountains of the state of New Mexico.


Los Alamos Laboratory from a bird's eye view. Photo: Wiki

Also Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories are two leading organizations in the development, application, storage and correct handling of nuclear weapons in the United States. Naturally, the Los Alamos complex consists of many buildings and laboratories. One of them, PF-4 (or Plutonium Facility-4) is a unique "workshop" where engineers are engaged in processing weapons-grade plutonium and testing charges for the American nuclear shield. That is, they actually work with plutonium at all levels.

Part one. Incidents at nuclear facilities: happened and prevented

"Critical incident" or last drop

In 2011, in the PF-4 laboratory of the nuclear complex in Los Alamos, an incident occurred which almost led to another catastrophe. One woe-engineer without a proper admission to the glove box or glove box (a special chamber that prevents the spread of particles of radioactive materials, dust) spread out plutonium rods in it for the sake of a beautiful photograph. LANL has its own Flickr channel, including photos of works in such glove-box, so "pozyrystvo" is not such a rarity.

However, the mass of radioactive materials located for the photo session against the backdrop of "dangerous" – a yellow tape, on a quarter exceeded the maximum permissible limit. The critical mass 239 Pu is only 11 kg, which is equivalent to a ball with a diameter of ~ 10 cm (in fact, a little less, the length of the handle in the image below)


Eight plutonium rods in fatal proximity to each other: slightly more material or neutron moderator and a chain reaction would be triggered. Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory / U.S. Department of Energy

Of course, the sensors and control systems worked instantly. The seriousness of the incident is indicated by the fact that the security chief of the whole complex in Los Alamos and a special brigade in chemical protection suits were called in to prevent the incident and spread the rods to a safe distance. As it was then clarified during the test and the "analysis of flights", the location of the rods was such that the careless movement, an additional neutron-reflecting element (even just the human body, which consists of 90% water that slows down the neutrons), and … a bright flash of a beckoning bluish Cherenkov radiation would almost instantly kill all the engineers in the room.


Oil painting: discouraged scientists at the doors of the PF-4 laboratory, where a nuclear accident just happened. Illustration by Joanna Eberts

As a result of the strengthening of security measures and the updating of the instruction on the handling of radioactive materials, where the incident was called the "most serious" (the most severe) in recent years, the laboratory left 12 of the 14 main engineers during the year, one and a half. Notice, the staff was simply forced to comply with security measures at a high-risk facility! This and other ensuing security problems at the facility caused the shutdown of the technological process for almost four years with minor interruptions. Perhaps the problems of the laboratory and the entire complex in Los Alamos have become one of the reasons why NASA lacks a sufficient amount of plutonium for spacecraft.

C'est l'histoire qui se répète? (Fr: is history repeating itself?)

Here the curious reader will surely ask the question: was this incident an accident and / or imprudence from ignorance?

Absolutely excluded. As in the practice of Los Alamos itself, so in the world practice of such cases is complete. It is highly unlikely that engineers admitted to handling fissile materials were not told about them.

So, for example, in Los Alamos itself for half a century, three scientists lost their lives from radiation sickness for several days, and many received Almost deadly doses in the blink of an eye, when a fateful coincidence of circumstances triggered a nuclear chain reaction while working with plutonium. Whether these cases were negligence, hope for "maybe" or unforeseen randomness in the performance of experiments is no longer important, it is important that the amount of fissile material per unit of volume exceeded a certain critical level. This is what engineers should never forget.

At first, in the mid-1940s, Harry Daghlian and Lewis Slotin were killed in operations with critical plutonium masses under similar experimental conditions. The tragedy of Slotin, for example, is described here. Their fate was repeated 12 years later by Cecil Kelley, who "prepared" a too concentrated solution of plutonium. Apparently, he did not know that the tank contained the remains of plutonium from past experiments and did not additionally verify it. After a bright blue flash, he ran out into the corridor with screams: "I'm burning!"


An unsuccessful screwdriver and two hemispheres with which Slotin conducted experiments. Source: LANL

A similar incident occurred in Japan 70 km from a multi-million Tokyo in 1999, when one of the workers failed to dosage the powder of enriched uranium and launched an uncontrolled chain reaction. Consequences: two received lethal doses, 120 people had to be evacuated, and 310,000 people had to hide for some time in bunkers. Japanese mini-Chernobyl, which happened long before Fukushima.

The radiation sickness of one of the Japanese workers (18 +)


In the hospital, 40 photographs of Masato Shinohara were made before he died a few months after the incident.

Part Two. What is wrong with the laboratory in Los Alamos?

Sabotage or total disregard for safety rules?

Official reports abound quite rigidly to the management of not only the PF-4 laboratory, but the entire complex of the national laboratory in Los Alamos. On the same site, Science Magazine has a tape with excerpts from such reports, which range from a veiled "incredible" to "staffing crisis" and "disaster."

Latest For four years the work of this laboratory tried to resume several dozen times, however, over and over again something happened, someone was wrong, an incident occurred, and the premises were closed for weeks and months. As noted above, the main task of the laboratory is testing of warheads for "professionalism". Of the almost three dozens of warheads planned for analysis and testing, the staff did not complete the entire cycle with a single product. And this despite the fact that Obama and Trump promised and fairly invested in the modernization of the American nuclear potential ruble dollar.

Plus, with the advent of private companies in this highly profitable business, the situation only worsened . Naturally, private companies somewhere try to keep silent about incidents, somewhere problems happen because of too much pressure from the management on the physics engineers and laboratory staff when they are forced to perform work on a tight schedule under the threat of depriving them of bonuses. For example, one of the glove-boxes in which work with plutonium should be performed was damaged in a collision with the cart, precisely because of the mass haste. It is not surprising that the last incident with plutonium dates back to March of this year.

As the articles of the Center for honesty in society narrate, the safety rules in the nuclear laboratory are violated by everything from physicists to managers who can not or will not Want to introduce clear and clear rules for TB.


Engineers at work in the glove box. Flickr LANL

Market economy and Washington's official position

Los Alamos at the moment is unique not only from a scientific point of view, but also from a socio-economic one. It could be assumed that the US government does not allocate sufficient sums, both for training and for the functioning itself. However, it is not. The ill-fated laboratory PF-4 consumes tens and hundreds of millions of dollars of American taxpayers a year. Private companies that are involved in the work, and profile universities are consistently receiving funding from the US Congress, having a net (!) Profit of $ 10-15 million per year. Excellent profit, considering that most of the time the laboratory is idle.

Among the reasons for the idle time and the impossibility to start the work in full volume, the authors of the report mention the following:

  • insufficient third-party control, because independent And / or federal officials in the positions of security chiefs are methodically replaced by more loyal people;
  • impudence of private companies that are more likely to pursue profit per unit of time rather than trying to perform work qualitatively and safely;
  • in the truest sense of the word, tiny sanctions in the event of incidents (that is, the absence of a whip);
  • poorly trained and / or unwilling to comply with safety regulations.

Below are the incomes of laboratories involved in the nuclear "business" of the United States, the lion's share is received by private traders. At the same time, the elimination of mistakes and incidents is mainly the responsibility of the federal authorities. Each leak or incident circumvents the budget in a tidy sum – up to several million $, depending on the complexity. However, penalties for nuclear incidents and non-compliance with safety regulations in comparison with earnings are mere pennies, tens of thousands of dollars. It is noteworthy that attempts to replace some companies by others fail: jur. Persons change, but the situation remains the same.


Net income for the last 10 years of the main national laboratories in the United States, working with fissile materials. The average annual income in some places exceeds $ 50 million

While Washington is trying to sue contractors half a million dollars for the breakdown of terms, the call of specialists to the scene of incidents and regular (almost every quarterly) audit, the Ministry of Energy The US pours millions and millions of the same dollars to maintain the infrastructure in working order and protect staff. At the same time, the Trump administration announced the cost of the "renovation" of nuclear weapons at $ 1.6 billion ( !!! ), the main role in which will be played by the same Los Alamos laboratory, because there is simply no other place in the US .

Is it possible that the matter is in the personnel? Partly yes. To simply prepare an employee for the starting position of an engineer requires up to 1.5 years of training and supervision, and to get a highly qualified employee for as long as 5 years. At the same time, workers hone highly specific skills in handling plutonium, which will not be of use to them either in life, or, most likely, in other jobs. We multiply this by the distance of the Los Alamos complex from "civilization" and introduce a correction factor for the glory of the greed of employers, which ultimately leads us to an extremely low attractiveness of the profession that once people were proud of.

Los Alamos Laboratory Only one of the most striking examples of which the Center for Integrity in Society tells in its articles.

Instead of concluding

In my purely personal view, the situation that unfolds around this laboratory, brings some anxiety for the safety of nuclear facilities in the United States. The cradle of nuclear weapons, 70 years after its creation, can not establish a safe conduct of tests of warheads.

On the other hand, the launch of private companies in critical industries, which is the correct handling of fissile materials – is not the best idea, even if it is a question of USA. In pursuit of profit and minimizing losses, the main thing disappears: safe handling of materials that can lead to serious environmental and socio-economic consequences. In this regard, the recent claims of the engineer to Ilona Mask about working conditions in the production of SpaceX do not seem so far-fetched and implausible, although the latter won the court.

And lastly, speaking globally, there are fears that because of Unimaginable complexity of systems, we begin to lose control over technological processes and operations that used to be considered routine.

The original articles are published on the Center of Public Integrity website and in the journal Science Magazine "A Near-disaster nuclear power Oll on America's arsenal » and « Safety problems at a Los Alamos laboratory delay U.S. Nuclear warhead testing and production »

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