In March 2005, a nuclear warhead almost exploded in Texas. The near miss accident occurred in Amarillo, when workers at the Pantex nuclear weapons plant bungled the dismantling of a W-56 warhead, a weapon 100 times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
Details of the averted catastrophe have been kept under wraps until last month, when the Department of Energy (DOE) fined the company that operates the plant, BWX Technologies, $110,000 for safety violations.
In a letter obtained by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), technicians at the plant blamed the accident on severe working conditions, including mandatory 72 to 84 hour work weeks. One nuclear scientist told POGO that he "would not work on his car engine if he were fatigued from a 72-hour work week, and sure as hell would not work on a nuclear weapon."
Besides hellish hours, workers described the "degrading" physical state of the plant in the letter to the BWX board. "Look around the plant. You will find leaking roofs, crumbling buildings, waist-high weed-infested landscapes, barricades and safety tape that makes this once-proud plant look like a crime scene."
In 2007, production goals at the plant will increase by 50 percent, which POGO calls a "recipe for disaster." Clearly it's time for the DOE to step in and show that the government is serious about nuclear security, both abroad and at home.