The Honorable Spencer Abraham
Secretary of Energy
Washington, DC 20585-1000
Dear Secretary Abraham:
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Board) has followed closely events surrounding the recent discovery of cracked high explosive during a weapon dismantlement at the Pantex Plant. When damaged, the response of this particular conventional explosive is difficult to predict, but it is known that the explosive becomes more sensitive. Also, the configuration of the partially dismantled weapon and the nature of the cracks appear to have increased the opportunities for dropping all or part of the explosive during handling, and hence increased the potential for a violent reaction.
In such a case, one expects the most careful scrutiny and deliberate decision-making process in determining the best way to proceed. The Department of Energy has established mechanisms to ensure that this deliberate process takes place. These include the Unreviewed Safety Question (USQ) process, the Nuclear Explosive Safety (NES) review process, and review by the appropriate design agency of Nuclear Explosive Engineering Procedures (NEEP). In this case, however, inappropriate conclusions degraded the effectiveness of these mechanisms:
In addition, the recovery procedure and associated training appear to have been inadequate:
The prudent response of the production technicians as they saw unexpected behavior of the explosive provided the only effective barrier preventing a drop of explosives with potentially unacceptable consequences. However, the significance of the failures that preceded the technicians’ actions raises questions about the effectiveness of the mechanisms put in place to ensure safe nuclear explosive operations. The Pantex Site Office and the Pantex contractor are moving forward with plans to address many of these questions; however, the Board would like to be informed of the analysis and corrective measures that will be taken. Therefore, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2286b(d), the Board requests a comprehensive report within 30 days of receipt of this letter documenting a root-cause analysis of each of the failures that led to this situation, and including commitments for their resolution.
John T. Conway
c: The Honorable Linton Brooks
The Honorable Everet H. Beckner
Mr. Mark B. Whitaker, Jr.