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Project on Government Oversight




Sandia Fails to Protect Public from Nuclear Release

February 25, 2005 


POGO has obtained an internal December 2004, Department of Energy (DOE) report which shows serious deficiencies in protecting workers and the community from a nuclear release or accident by the Sandia National Laboratory, operated by Lockheed Martin (see

The report, “Independent Evaluation of Field Element Performance Review Plan for the Review of the Sandia Site Office” by the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA), found numerous missing safety controls needed to protect the public at three of Sandia’s five nuclear facilities. Click here to download the report with Adobe Acrobat. (Please note this is a large document and may take a while to open- 2mg.)

It appears at least one of those reactors is currently operating.  At the other two facilities, the review noted that while there is no evidence of danger to the public, there is inadequate documentation to demonstrate that they can operate safely.  The report found that the safety deficiencies were so pervasive at two of the reactors that the safety analysis would have to be entirely “redone.”

According to an attachment to the review, “Assessment Form 1 for Functional Area SPRF/CX, [Sandia Pulse Reactor Facility Critical Experiment]” Sandia had underestimated the radiological doses to the public due to a radioactive plume, in the event of an accident, by a factor of five, by miscalculating the true distance to the public. Sandia had improperly claimed that a golf course, riding stables, a clubhouse, public access roads did not involve the public. The NNSA review concluded that:

“The golf course and the riding stables are recreational facilities on Kirtland AFB that are used by active-duty and retired military personnel, federal and contractor employees, and their family members.  This group of people is considered to be the public. It is not credible that these members of the public could be evacuated outside the 3000 meter exclusion boundary prior to the arrival of any plumes of hazardous material from an accident within the Technical Area V.”

In addition, the review found that “The caretakers for the riding stables live in a manufactured home within the stable grounds with their children.” 

The report adds to evidence found by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board that nuclear safety protections at Sandia are inadequate. That report (click here to view the report) found that no safety class systems to protect the public were in place to prevent a radioactive plume from escaping from Sandia’s Auxiliary Hot Cell Facility. It noted that NNSA approved a safety analysis for the facility despite 111 pending safety concerns.

Given these results, POGO questions the NNSA’s wisdom of promoting a “Self-Governance” model at the national nuclear laboratories and facilities. The Self-Governance model was created by NNSA and tested with Sandia as the prototype because of allegations by the contractors that accountable federal oversight of nuclear operations was interfering with contractor flexibility and costing too much. Under the “Self-Governance” model, the contractor regulates the safety of its own operations with no federal oversight.  This model is proposed for use at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the future.

POGO has been informed that to address these issues, Lockheed Martin is busily writing a series of “white papers,” rather than correcting deficiencies.

The revelations of safety failures at Sandia come at a time when Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s plutonium facility at Super Block was recently shut down for safety problems, and some of Los Alamos Lab’s facilities remain closed after seven months because of safety and security problems.

“It is remarkable that some of the nuclear facilities at Sandia remain operational given the findings of these reports.  It is particularly notable that the SPRF reactor, the only one containing weapons quantities of bomb-grade nuclear materials, is not scheduled to be destroyed until 2007, despite these safety and ongoing security concerns,” said POGO’s Executive Director, Danielle Brian.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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