A Critical Problem

This photo gives me the creeps.

When you work with dangerous stuff, you have to condition yourself to respond at the level of emotion. You have to think things out too, but having a sense of what you can and can’t do that operates immediately is important. Children learn that hot stoves and automobile traffic are dangerous. We automatically stop at the street. It’s tourist season in Santa Fe, though, and I have observed that some lack that automatic response.

I’ve dealt with dangerous stuff since I was a child. I had a real chemistry set, not the baking-powder-and-vinegar wimp boxes that are the only things sold now. My parents walked with me a lot in the outdoors and made it clear that wild strawberries were good to eat and deadly nightshade was not.

I loved my lab courses in high school and college. Working at a national laboratory added more precautions I needed to learn. I worked with high-voltage lasers. I did a little bit of plutonium chemistry in a glovebox. And then I managed people who were developing cans for storing plutonium.

We expected the plutonium to be in the form of flat cylindrical ingots, like the enriched uranium in this photo.  It had to be protected from the air, from unauthorized removal, and from criticality incidents. The criticality safety group played an important part in designing those cans. The cans were about a foot high. The ingots were about an inch thick. The extra space was for criticality safety.

Probably before I came to Los Alamos, I read about Louis Slotin and Harry Daghlian, who were killed by criticality incidents. They were doing experiments to determine criticality properties for nuclear weapons design. They died horribly. Don’t read about them unless you have a strong stomach.

The metal rods in the top photo are plutonium. Rods can roll. These rods could roll closer to each other and perhaps produce the kind of runaway neutron reaction that killed Slotin and Daghlian. Putting a hand in to separate them could make the reaction worse because the water in a human body reflects the neutrons.

I had formal safety training, informal discussions with more experienced people, and made it a point to internalize rules of thumb. Keep pieces of plutonium separate. Abide by glovebox limitations; every glovebox has a sign with the limits of plutonium allowed in it. For solutions, keep them dilute and in flat containers. Flat/thin is safer; the closer a shape is to spherical, the less material is needed to go critical. IIRC, there were racks to put rods in if you were working with that shape of metal, so that they didn’t accidentally roll together.

That photo is at the center of two articles from the Center for Public Integrity (NMPolitics.net, Washington Post). They are based on an investigation reported here. According to those articles, a technician ignored glovebox limits and arranged the plutonium to take that photo for management. A Los Alamos manager is also quoted in the articles as saying that the criticality safety group was an unnecessary expense. A number of the senior people in the criticality safety group were of my vintage and were expected to retire about when I did. According to the articles, management’s signal was heard loud and clear, and the rest left.

It took the criticality safety group two months to work out the criticality aspects of our can design. I found that frustrating, too. They had to consider the way the cans might be stacked, how they might fall together and how the ingots inside might move if a stack of cans fell. What if they were in a flooded area? If people decided to rescue them from that flooded area? Water, by itself and in human bodies, enhances the neutron reactions that lead to criticality.

The criticality safety group develops those criticality limits posted on gloveboxes. They take into account the kinds of operations in the glovebox, the equipment inside, and the effects of operators’ hands and bodies nearby.

I learned from people who recalled personally what happened to Slotin and Daghlian. Today’s managers at Los Alamos are rotated through, I’ve heard, every two years. There are not many other places where one learns criticality safety. If Los Alamos is to manufacture nuclear weapons pits, criticality safety evaluation is essential.

A criticality accident affects people who are close to it. It is not a nuclear explosion; the neutron reactions are the same but occur much more slowly. The closest people die horribly, but some tens of feet distance and walls between will shield others. Raemer Schrieber was present at the Slotin accident and lived into his eighties.

It is unconscionable not to educate workers to the dangers involved with handling plutonium. It is worse to encourage poor practice. Did the manager for whom that photo was made understand criticality safety? Or the manager who said to just keep working?

One of the reasons for adding industrial partners to the management of Los Alamos along with the University of California was to improve safety practices. That was done without considering the standard industrial management practice of rotating managers rapidly and the ever-present profit motive. Industry does things better, period. But perhaps not for a singular enterprise like designing and building nuclear weapons.

Coda: I am usually highly critical of articles on nuclear issues coming from the Center for Public Integrity. They often get the science wrong and display an excessive fear of radioactivity. They did a much better job with this investigation. There are a number of small errors and infelicities of word use in these articles, but nothing like the bloopers they have produced before.


Update: The National Nuclear Security Administration says that the issues of criticality safety have been cleared up.

This is plausible because the photo is said to have been made in 2011. That would allow time to reassert the importance of criticality safety and rebuild the group responsible for it. And, as I said above, the Center for Public Integrity has been sensationalistic in the past. But I’d like to hear more from NNSA. The fact that that incident occurred at all is disturbing.


Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.

91 replies
  1. 1
    mb says:

    Good thing Rick Perry is in charge.

  2. 2
    D58826 says:

    So we just missed turning the lab into a large smoking crater

  3. 3

    […] Cross-posted to Balloon Juice. […]

  4. 4

    It’s still really weird to me that just mashing two blocks of metal together is all it takes. Radiation is scary.

  5. 5
    Snarki, child of Loki says:

    “What good is having nuclear weapons if you never use them?” said Donald Trump.

    Looks like LANL has the stuff to make some really really good paperweights for the presidential desk.

    Even better when combined with Newton’s Cradle

  6. 6
    raven says:

    I assume you are familiar with “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser?

  7. 7
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @D58826: No, just frying a technician and possibly some others.

  8. 8
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @raven: @raven: Yes. Accidents happen.

  9. 9
    raven says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: I dropped a socket on my toe just the other day!

  10. 10
    Stan says:

    I work in a (non-nuclear) lab. We get safety briefs occasionally whenever there’s an accident in a similar lab anywhere (so we can take advantage of the lessons learned etc).

    It is *almost always* some very basic safety procedure being left undone that gets people. Sometimes it kills them. It’s not the fancy stuff that goes wrong, it’s the stuff you were taught when you were new and then….someone stopped making you do it.

  11. 11
    sharl says:

    Love this fascinating post. Hope to at least glance through the links later.

    In my history of glove box work – fortunately not with radioactive matters, but rather air/moisture sensitive chemicals – I always did a preliminary mental run-through of what I would be doing in the box, and what materials I would need to do it. Forgetting something, e.g., a custom spatula or weighing dish, added lots of time to the process as the whole procedure for introducing materials into the box via the evacuable pass-thru chamber was rather long (at least in our lab). Glad I didn’t have to add considerations of radioactive criticality to that procedure!

  12. 12
    A Ghost To Most says:

    The invisible (and lethal) hand of the free market at work.

  13. 13
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @raven: Good thing your toe isn’t full of dimethylhydrazine!

  14. 14
    WereBear says:

    We are in the midst of an epidemic of incompetence.

  15. 15
    wvng says:

    Well, that is both fascinating and deeply disturbing. At least it took my mind off Twitler for a few minutes.

  16. 16
    O. Felix Culpa says:

    My former (almost) BIL, a retired Marine helicopter pilot, investigates air crashes for the NTSB. He says that nearly all accidents are caused by human error and/or neglecting basic safety procedures. Perhaps sometimes it’s ignorance, but I suspect that more often it’s people underestimating the risks to THEMSELVES, as well as to others. A curious behavioral trait.

  17. 17
    trollhattan says:


    Also, too, is it wrong that just viewing the photo above the fold had me recalling where Steely Dan got their name?

  18. 18
    realbtl says:

    Holee Shit, that scares me as well. I spent a couple of years in the Pu bldg at LLNL in the late 80s. That picture is just a serious WTF.

  19. 19
    Kelly says:

    I’ve rarely dealt with dangerous substances. I have had many discussions with folks about the hazards of carelessly stowed rope when floating whitewater. Particularly folks on inner tubes.

  20. 20
    trollhattan says:


    We are in the midst of an epidemic of incompetence.

    Further, it’s being framed with the feature/bug? philosophy, as rabid incompetence can kill government organizations and programs that can’t be killed legislatively.

  21. 21

    Thanks Cheryl, it’s so hard to find good nuclear news these days.

  22. 22
    Mark B says:

    The only that photo should have been taken was with dummy ingots made of something inert, like lead. And even then, it would be ethically questionable, since it demonstrates something that would be really dangerous with real ingots. It’s just human nature to take risks, but some risks aren’t worth taking. I’m hoping that the manager that requested that photo is facing serious disciplinary action.

  23. 23
    Woodrowfan says:

    it that what happened to John Cusack is “Fat Man and Little Boy”??

  24. 24
  25. 25
    Woodrowfan says:

    @WereBear: GAH< I looked it up. It was based on two real incidents…

  26. 26
    WereBear says:

    @trollhattan: Oh, it is inadvertent; the only ones allowed power are incompetent.

    It is deliberate; what to they care if a program is run right?

    It is profit-seeking; making crap is fine with manufacturing, because where are you going to go?

  27. 27
    Immanentize says:

    @O. Felix Culpa: in criminal law, one thing we look at is catastrophic accidents like plane crashes or refinery explosions. Often, it is really not overt negligence but a kind of mind slip regarding routine behaviors. That’s really what happened at Three Mile Island and probably Chernobyl​. The book The Checklist Manifesto has some excellent — and interesting — tales about human capacity to fuck up.

  28. 28
    The Moar You Know says:

    Safety is job #46975.

  29. 29
    TEL says:

    One thing Cheryl mentioned but didn’t go into much detail about ( I’m hoping the article goes into more detail about this-I’ll read it later) is the role privatization played into lowering safety standards. The defense corporation that holds the lab contract has little expertise in this sort of work, yet is tasked with making safety decisions for it.

    I was a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the time the privatization took place and left within a year. Good pay and great benefits yet I’ve never been so happy to walk away from a job in my life.

  30. 30
    Wapiti says:

    Very interesting read, Cheryl. Radioactivity and thermal radiation are two subjects that I find hard to comprehend, yet fascinating.

    And yes, someone’s section needs to take a safety day, review the rules, and develop guidelines for reporting managers up the chain of command.

  31. 31
    Honus says:

    I read about Slotin and the Demon Core a few years ago. What struck me was how casually those physicists worked with those things. Slotin was lifting the cover of the core with a screwdriver that slipped, and the resulting radiation burst killed him. Apparently the only manifestation was a quick blue flash and short heat wave. I can’t believe they’re still being so casual with the plutonium in those photos.

  32. 32
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @Wapiti: As far as I can tell from the articles, it is the managers who are the biggest part of the problem.

  33. 33
    daveNYC says:

    @D58826: Nope. More like whoever was in that room dying Ebola style. Maybe the room would have had to be tombs up too.

    I would have thought that everyone at Los Alamos would have read up on the history of the place. Or at least be aware how malevolent the shit they work with can be. Hell, Japan had a criticality event not that long ago.

  34. 34
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @TEL: There is a bit of that in the articles. I happen to be of the retrograde frame of mind that the government should be in charge of dangerous stuff like nuclear weapons and stuff that is a matter of life and death, like armies and prisons. But that went out of style for a while.

  35. 35
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @Honus: There was a lot of slapdash about the Manhattan Project. Also, far too many physicists think they are omnicompetent. After Slotin and Daghlian, those experiments were done remotely and criticality safety calculations became a thing.

  36. 36
    Dmbeaster says:

    Unfortunately, the Univ of California has a long and bad history of maintaining safe operations at Los Alamos. The relationship should have been terminated long ago, as the UC has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to run things properly. Its odd to say that the Dept of Energy should have exclusive control since it hardly has a good record on the subject, but the UC has been appalling.

    And that picture is absolutely frightening, and I am just a lawyer with a good knowledge about nuclear physics (I already knew the Slotin and Daghlian stories). The danger of plutonium is not easy for lay people to get – there is no common sense experience that explains the nature of near criticality danger from a lump of metal. To pooh-pooh the risk is the classic example of why disasters happen, and clearly bad management of the risk at UC goes to the top.

  37. 37
    amygdala says:

    @sharl: Definitely this. For many “minor” medical procedures there are pre-packaged kits with the necessary items, but having backups handy is useful and important. And that takes knowing what all the steps are in advance.

  38. 38
    Boatboy_srq says:

    @daveNYC: Ah, but all that safety stuff is just red tape that prevents Real Patriotic Ahmurrrrrcans from getting things done donchano.

  39. 39
    TenguPhule says:

    Can Rick Perry lead Trump in a guided tour of that facility for an up close and personal experience?

    /We’re all thinking it.

  40. 40
    TenguPhule says:

    @The Moar You Know:

    Safety is job #46975.

    The position has been downsized and is no longer available.

  41. 41
    Jeffro says:


    The book The Checklist Manifesto has some excellent — and interesting — tales about human capacity to fuck up.

    That’s funny…my high-comedy contribution to this thread was just about to be “Checklists, baby, checklists!” but I see there’s a book I need to read (seriously) first.

  42. 42
    TEL says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: A sentiment shared with a large number of LLNL scientists. There was an exodus of scientists out of LLNL those first few years, most of whom they’ve been unable to replace.

  43. 43
    Gravenstone says:

    @D58826: No. Had the rods entered a criticality, they would have emitted a neutron flux that continued until they were separated again. But the mass presented is likely far less than is required to sustain fission. Instead, any living thing within the envelope of the neutron flux would likely have been killed, fairly slowly and in horrible fashion as Cheryl alluded to in her post.

    Noting that my background in nuclear physics was limited to a handful of undergrad courses *mumble* years ago. But the physics doesn’t change, nor will the outcome of such accidents.

  44. 44
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @Dmbeaster: UC is no longer the sole manager of Los Alamos. More than a decade ago, Bechtel and other companies formed a combine with UC to manage the Laboratory. The managers on site are Bechtel people, and they rotate every few years. Not surprising that they wouldn’t understand how essential criticality safety is, but appalling that the DOE allows this to continue.

  45. 45
    Gravenstone says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Ah, I always thought the socket had pierced the oxidizer tank, rather than the fuel. Neither substance being noted as being particularly healthy for humans, of course.

  46. 46
    Timurid says:

    If they really want to show off those ingots, couldn’t they have used a container that would keep them from rolling around? Instead they propped them up on something, making it more likely that they will move… *shudder*
    Forget the assistant crack whores… the worst job belongs to whoever has to scratch serial numbers into chunks of plutonium.

  47. 47
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @Gravenstone: That could be. Bad either way.

  48. 48
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @Timurid: My recollection is that there were racks for holding plutonium cylinders for just that reason. Just thinking about their rolling around makes me cringe.

    Okay, y’all. I’m going off to have lunch with O. Felix Culpa. Will check in when I get back.

  49. 49
    liberal says:

    Flat/thin is safer; the closer a shape is to spherical, the less material is needed to go critical.

    A great opportunity to discuss the isoperimetric inequality!

  50. 50
    Gravenstone says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Yet, the accidents still occasionally happen. Surprising to me that that was over 20 years ago now. For some reason I thought it was much more recent. Still, always need to be mindful when handling dangerous materials.

  51. 51
    Keith P. says:

    Dying in a criticality accident is a pretty horrific way to go. It’s just a flash, a metallic taste in the mouth, and some nausea. Then, you deteriorate rapidly over a few days as your organs die off. Your skin may peel off in the process, I can’t remember all the symptoms.

  52. 52
    Roger Moore says:


    So we just missed turning the lab into a large smoking crater

    No. For complex reasons, it’s nearly impossible to set off a nuclear explosion just by bringing chunks of plutonium together. What you get instead is a lot of heat and neutrons. The neutrons will kill nearby people, and the heat may be enough to force the chunks of plutonium back apart, but it won’t create the kind of high-level explosion that would turn the whole lab into a smoking crater.. Even uranium, where it’s possible to make bombs just by pushing pieces of metal together, it has to be done faster than just letting the pieces roll together on a benchtop, and other tricks are used to increase the chances of an explosion instead of a fizzle.

  53. 53

    @Thoroughly Pizzled:

    While that’s true, keep in mind that uranium has to be heavily processed to reach dangers of criticality, and plutonium isn’t found in nature, except in trace amounts.

    That’s not saying it isn’t *weird*. Yes, an ordinary atom bomb is just two subcritical masses of uranium, set to become a critical mass when they connect. It’s not really that hard to do – what’s hard to do is to have enough to cause the critical mass, without having enough to be so radioactive it can kill you, and in keeping those subcritical masses from coming together until the very instant you want them to.

  54. 54
    dnfree says:

    @Stan: I worked in a tire factory. We had mandatory monthly safety meetings, frequently featuring the story of someone who had lost an arm or worse, or died, using the same equipment he used every day, taking a shortcut he used every day. Nothing ever went wrong, until it did. If the victim survived, the video would show him imploring others not to skip safety procedures the way he had for years.

  55. 55
    Yutsano says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Meet-ups require pictures!

  56. 56
    TenguPhule says:


    the worst job belongs to whoever has to scratch serial numbers into chunks of plutonium.

    Kushner’s future prison work?

  57. 57
    TEL says:

    I just read the article. When liquid waste containing plutonium was spilled, they used cheesecloth to mop it up. The radiation from plutonium can cause an explosive reaction with organic materials, if I remember correctly. This is actinide chemistry 101 level knowledge, and a huge no no. No wonder the safety engineers walked.

  58. 58
    elm says:

    If I recall correctly, LANL packed a barrel of nuclear waste that erupted when stored at the WIPP near Carlsbad in February 2014. That incident traces back to incorrect packing instructions and lack of proofreading the directions (the written instructions specified “an organic cat litter” rather than “inorganic cat litter”).

  59. 59
    Gravenstone says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: No, my recollection was just off. The article I referenced before posting confirmed that it did indeed rupture the fuel tank.

  60. 60
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:

    Cheryl, may I ask, have you worked with anyone who knew Oppenheimer? I find him a fascinating person. I read American Prometheus twice and the later, more science-focused bio as well. Do you have any thoughts on his place in the history of nuclear materials/exploration?

  61. 61
    Roger Moore says:

    @O. Felix Culpa:

    Perhaps sometimes it’s ignorance, but I suspect that more often it’s people underestimating the risks to THEMSELVES, as well as to others. A curious behavioral trait.

    People are terrible at estimating risk, especially for very rare events. If we’ve never seen it or heard from people who have, it doesn’t seem real. And I think this is compounded by the specific kind of carelessness that happens when there are multiple levels of safety managed by different people. There’s a huge temptation to skip your part of the safety system on the belief that somebody else’s part will keep you safe, which winds up making the system as a whole much less safe than you’d think based on the performance of the individual safety systems.

  62. 62
    JCJ says:

    Hi Cheryl I just thought of a quick question for you. When I was on college (Purdue) two of my professors were Robert Landolt and Paul Ziemer. I think one or both of them might have worked at Los Alomos. Did you know either of them?

  63. 63
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    Good thing Rick Perry is in charge.

    Okay, I read Cheryl’s article with equanimity and aplomb, but now I’m freaking out.

  64. 64
    Matt McIrvin says:

    @Honus: The blue flash is Cerenkov radiation. You often see it in pool-type reactors, in water. I’ve heard that, as a rule, if you ever see it in air, you’re dead, whether you realize it yet or not.

  65. 65
    bluefoot says:

    Woah. I took one look at that top photo and thought, “That can’t be what I think it is…” and then read the post. I know people can get inured to the dangers around them, but habit alone should prevent one from doing something like that. I’ve been in and around labs my entire career, and there’s a million things you do unconsciously to work safely.

  66. 66
    🌷 Martin says:

    @Thoroughly Pizzled: What’s even weirder is that you don’t have to move them together, just change the conditions around them – in ways that you can’t see.

    I don’t have remotely the background of Cheryl, but we did have a series of labs in my physics curriculum to get an appreciation of the challenges of handling nuclear materials. We did a number of round-number criticality paper experiments – the ‘now what happens when you put this in water’ exercise. It left us nowhere near able to solve any of these problems, but left us with a clear appreciation that this stuff is incredibly important to leave to experts to do, and one such lab also explored the likely chain of custody of such a component – from those highly trained experts down through any number of perhaps no so well trained individuals that might need to handle these things, and because you can’t see the conditions and consequences of a nuclear mistake (unless it’s a really big fucking mistake) you have to idiot-proof things to such a high degree that even the best trained PhD can’t fuck it up – because we did study Daghlian and Slotin, and they were the best trained PhDs that still fucked it up.

  67. 67
    🌷 Martin says:

    @LongHairedWeirdo: True, though there are cases of natural nuclear fission reactors.

  68. 68
    phein55 says:

    I’m not even remotely surprised by what appears to be near-criminal lackadaisicality. I worked on environmental compliance auditing for DoE in the previous decade. DoE used to have a robust compliance program, marketing to other Federal agencies, but lost out to the Corps of Engineers in the early 1990s. They eventually dropped their own internal audit program for a variety of reasons, but mostly because their contractors were really sharp and dedicated to their own safety. Eventually, the DoE FacReps were undercut in contract renewals, the internal audit program died, and they started picking up NOVs for minor things. The contractors preferred to think of the fines as a cost-of-doing business and pay the fines themselves, rather than have a structured audit program.

    Then they had some mishaps that should have never happened and got some bad publicity. That’s when they called us in to revive their internal audits for the EM folks (cleanup sites; think Richland (Hanford), Oak Ridge, Scoville). We inspected their operations at a very large LLMW storage facility. All the hangars had very nice charts showing the criticality zones around the pallets of drums, based on the contents of the drums.

    Then we checked the database of the HW drums themselves, based on a sampling of ID numbers we wrote down during the site visit. Not one out of 10 was accurate. Not one. This meant that they had no idea what they had stored where, and all their lovely criticality charts were misleading at best.

    DoE dropped our program after about 6 years, having adopted an ISO 14001-compliant internal audit program. I trust the contractors to follow through — no one follows procedures like nuclear waste workers — but I’m sure that any command-emphasis will be short-lived, and it takes command-emphasis to force people to audit their own programs.

  69. 69

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): His research was more the theoretical kind.

  70. 70
    Kathleen says:

    @O. Felix Culpa: I’ve read where sometimes it’s as simple as a garbled or misunderstood communication between traffic controller and pilot, or between pilot and co-pilot. Or fatigue. Or the co-pilot’s fear of disagreeing with the Captain. Students getting masters or doctorates in Aeronautical Engineering write their dissertations on that. I find it fascinating.

  71. 71
    MomSense says:

    Now that Rick Perry is in charge of the Dept. of Energy, we have nothing to worry about.

  72. 72
    Dmbeaster says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: So is it Bechtel or the UC that has ultimate authority? I was aware that they set up the UC and private industry partnership to improve management. It is pathetic that stuff this stupid happens. If you replace the plutonium in fhe picture with high explosives that will explode if they come in contact (or even close proximity), it is hard to imagine anyone doing the same thing. Why plutonium seems to elicit less concern from persons allegedly knowledgeable is really hard to believe.

  73. 73
    trollhattan says:

    Managed to read the WaPo article and loved this gem.

    Bowen recalled frequently hearing an official with one of the private contractors running PF-4 say “we don’t even need a criticality-safety program,” and that the work was costing the contractor too much money.

    Which summarizes every warm and fuzzy feeling I have from my days working at consulting engineering firms (one of which is name-checked as an LANL contractor).

  74. 74
    Tehanu says:

    Why has reading this made the “Simpsons” theme start going through my head?

  75. 75
    Ruckus says:

    Had a friend who worked on non radioactive projects back a few decades. One was the rocket packs or what was commonly known as a jet pack. They used high concentration hydrogen peroxide as a fuel, turning it into steam with the use of nitrogen. So it was actually a steam powered rocket pack. And they had investigated using hydrazine. Any way he told me that they took no precautions with the hydrogen peroxide or hydrazine, stored it in drums outside. They were all smart people and they thought nothing of everyday use of very dangerous, toxic chemicals.
    What amazes me is that far more people weren’t killed/harmed in the 50s-60s from all types of hazardous substances, radioactive and otherwise just very dangerous. And deadly. And yet kids hid under their desks to avoid the mushroom cloud.
    And it wasn’t just radioactivity or chemicals, a lot of industrial jobs were very dangerous.
    And all of this is trying to be revived by the moneygrubbers, who don’t give a shit about anything but profit. Given our dependence upon a lot of dangerous processes to enable modern life and the increase in population since 1950, a 1950s style business attitude towards worker and customer safety would be a huge disaster, not just waiting to happen but guaranteed to happen.

  76. 76

    @🌷 Martin: Thanks! I’m a person with an MSc in math who learned years too late that he should have majored in physics, so I’m a complete duffer at nuclear physics. I’d heard a bit about the fission reactions. I’d even heard – this is one where I’m *really* cautious – that there’s thought that cold fusion could occur naturally. (That is: “yes, Pons/Fleischmann was a bust, but the *idea* of cold fusion isn’t as crazy as you might think.”)

  77. 77
    David Hunt says:


    Good thing Rick Perry is in charge.

    An even scarier thing about this situation is that, as far as Trump appointments go, it actually is a good thing that Rick Perry is in charge. Even though he’s a genuine dim bulb, he seems to take the prospect of governing seriously and he knows that he has a lot to learn about the DOE. He’s a rarity in the Trump Admin as a person with actual experience in government, too. He might even listen to actual experts occasionally as I don’t think he’s that far into the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    Before anyone bites my head off, I know that he’s horrible. It’s just that could have been oh so much worse.

  78. 78
    Stan says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    far too many physicists think they are omnicompetent.

    A lot of chemists too. Sadly, they get slack not only about their own safety but their staff’s as well. Again, it almost always goes back to basics.

    There was a lab (can’t recall the name) years ago that used to levy small fines, on the spot, for safety violations. E.g., they’d whack you for $25 if you wore a lab coat into the lunch room and stuff like that. The safety director said it was very effective. Once people knew she was serious about taking money from them, compliance was very good.

  79. 79
    Ruckus says:

    @Roger Moore:

    There’s a huge temptation to skip your part of the safety system on the belief that somebody else’s part will keep you safe, which winds up making the system as a whole much less safe than you’d think based on the performance of the individual safety systems.

    The first word I thought about when reading this was vaccinations. Talk about people who can not ascertain risks reasonably.

  80. 80
    West of the Rockies (been a while) says:


    Oh course, but I thought perhaps Cheryl had a fun tale or two.

  81. 81
    Cheryl Rofer says:


    When liquid waste containing plutonium was spilled, they used cheesecloth to mop it up. The radiation from plutonium can cause an explosive reaction with organic materials, if I remember correctly.

    This ties in with @elm:

    If I recall correctly, LANL packed a barrel of nuclear waste that erupted when stored at the WIPP near Carlsbad in February 2014. That incident traces back to incorrect packing instructions and lack of proofreading the directions (the written instructions specified “an organic cat litter” rather than “inorganic cat litter”).

    And this is something that everyone who works with uranium and plutonium should understand. The problem in both cases is not the radiation, but the nitric acid, which is commonly used for uranium and plutonium processing. The nitric acid is a strong oxidizer, so combining it with organic matter like rags or wheat-based kitty litter is a really dumb thing to do. The mistake that led to the drum erupting was as elementary as not putting those plutonium ingots together that way in the photo.

  82. 82
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @West of the Rockies (been a while): I have a friend who grew up on Los Alamos and knew EVERYBODY. But she was only a kid when she met most of them.

  83. 83
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @JCJ: I don’t know either Robert Landolt or Paul Ziemer. Turns out Los Alamos was a bigger place than it seemed when I worked there.

  84. 84
    Cheryl Rofer says:

    @Dmbeaster: I’m not sure who has the ultimate authority. The management structure is a separate corporation owned by the partners. Bechtel is certainly more visible, and it’s their executives who rotate through. My sense is that UC is now a minor player. I got out before the transition, and I’m glad I did.

  85. 85

    It seems to me that the easiest way to fix the problem would be to tie the contractors’ bonuses to safety records FIRST, and only secondarily to production targets. If managers have no personal (financial) incentive to respect criticality, they won’t.

    It may be that there’s no way to be safety-first in a for-profit environment, because C-level execs will ALWAYS benefit from corner-cutting and will never be at personal risk. The most important thing I learned from dog obedience training was “Reward the behavior you want to continue; don’t reward what you want to stop.” Is there any way to reward safety in a for-profit, or will the C-level always game the system?

  86. 86
    TEL says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Thanks for the correction. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about this stuff.

  87. 87
    Al Swearengen says:

    In the world of radioactive messes, none compares to Rocky Flats here in CO. Especially the “Infinity Room” in building 771. (Named because it pegged counters.)


  88. 88
    JR in WV says:

    Well, just got to this post/thread. Glad I saw it and read the whole thing.


    I wondered about the criticality accidents, I know there was more than one, amazing anyone lived through one. You would think they would have been using remote equipment early on, machinists could have built handlers even back then….

    I’ve seen pictures of water with fuel down in there, blue glow. Thought it was fascinating at first, years ago, now I have learned not to want to see it myself.

  89. 89
    JR in WV says:

    @Al Swearengen:

    Quite a link !!!

    Here’s the caption of a photo from the factory, now gone, but scraps are preserved in photos:

    Detail view of a glove box damaged in a fire that occurred on May 11, 1969. The fire occurred from the spontaneous ignition of a briquette of scrap plutonium alloy metal. (5/18/69)

    Glad Rocky Flats is gone, from the photos it was pretty Rube Goldberg, and dangerous to everyone on the planet.

  90. 90
    fuckwit says:

    @trollhattan: We are living in Idiocracy.

  91. 91
    Jonathan Thornburg says:

    Both sides of the iron curtain saw a fair number of nuclear criticality accidents during the peak production years of the cold war. A classic Los Alamos report, LA-13638, describes 22 of them (13 USSR, 1 UK, 1 Japan, 7 US). Some were due to workers being sloppy, some were due to design flaws in the equipment. It’s eerie reading.

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