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High Explosive Management Problems Persist at the Lab

Posted on Thursday, September 10, 2020

Posted by Scott Yundt

High Explosive Management Problems Persist at the Lab

On September 9, 2020 the U.S. Department of Energy’s Inspector General (DOE IG) released an Inspection Report on “The Department of Energy’s Management of Explosive Materials at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.” The DOE IG has inspected the management of High Explosives at Livermore Lab in the past and found significant problems.

This recent inspection disclosed that serious problems persist in the Lab’s management of dangerous high explosives. First, the inspectors discovered multiple ways in which Livermore Lab ignores required regulations governing the management of these high-risk substances.

For example the report notes that, “We interviewed eight officials responsible for explosives management at HEAF [High Explosives Application Facility] and Site 300, and upon our request none provided us with detailed inventory procedures.” So these officials acknowledged that the Lab is not following any particular set of regulations. The report goes on the note that in fact there are eight different high explosives management systems being used between the Lab’s Site 300 high explosives testing range and the Main Site, where HEAF is located.

Additionally, the inspectors found that the “custodians” of the high explosives were doing their own inventorying of the materials in violation of the requirement that explicitly states, “Physical inventories shall be performed by the use of personnel other than the custodians of the property.” These regulations are in place to create efficiency and prevent this material from going missing. The inspectors found several inventory errors that resulted from these various management systems and could lead to a loss (or theft) of explosive material.

Also alarming were the physical problems with high explosives storage that the inspectors found on site. For example, the report says that “we observed two damaged storage containers, one having a broken handle, and the other partially damaged, unsealed, and infested with insects.” The report notes that the Lab was not following its own protocols for pest abatement. “In response to our observations, LLNL officials immediately replaced the insect-infested container with an approved onsite container.”

In addition the report, “observed that some of LLNL’s explosives storage facilities showed signs of physical deterioration at Site 300. For example, 14 storage facilities at Site 300 had peeling interior paint, and another had a severe mice infestation that prevented us from entering the magazine until it was decontaminated. The mice-infested magazine also had wide gaps around the doorway, which may have been a contributing factor to rodent infestation. As previously mentioned, we also identified an insect infestation inside an explosives container stored within a magazine at Site 300.” Despite the Lab’s $2 billion dollar per year budget, they are unable to prevent rodents from entering buildings housing High Explosives. This underscores that Lab continues to prioritize new warhead development over site maintenance and safety.

Finally, an enduring problem, given the Lab’s rapid expansion and ramping up of nuclear weapons work, is that it is running out of space to house High Explosives. The report notes that “During our inspection, we identified older and legacy materials that programs do not plan to use in the future. Officials stated that physical storage space is crowded and one official stated that more storage space may be necessary for new work on life extension programs.”

“In response to the limited availability of space, Lab officials stated that they do not have a formal plan to manage the space in the future, but actively attempt to mitigate the situation through the disposition of older material and the use of the older material in training and cleaning shots. However, there are a number of limitations that slow the disposition and use of older material.

Due to California air quality restrictions, Site 300 is only permitted to expend 1,000 pounds of explosives each year in the open air and must follow specific guidance based on environmental concerns. An official stated that Livermore Lab shipped some explosives offsite for disposition in the past 2 years, but due to security concerns there are limitations for the remaining materials. If the Lab “continues to work on [warhead] life extension programs in the near future, then it is necessary that the explosive managers actively manage the stockpile now to provide room for future material,” he said according to the DOE IG report.

Tri-Valley CAREs objects to the ever increasing amount of High Explosives stored and used in experiments at Livermore Lab’s Main Site and Site 300 and believes it is essential for the Lab to evaluate the risks posed by an accident or intentional act due to this material being housed in such close proximity to workers and the public.

CLICK HERE to read the DOE IG report.