PantexSometimes old news deserves attention: Ari Berman, of the lively Notion blog at The Nation, posts that we recently nearly saw an accidental nuclear detonation at the one plant for decommission and retirement of nuclear weapons in this country, run by Pantex in Amarillo, Tex.

He writes:

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.

This emerged after a less-provocative-but-still-troubling story from Ralph Vartabedian at the L.A. Times, who revealed that the U.S. Department of Energy fined Pantex $110,000 for violations revealed after the incident, and has launched an investigation.

Sounds reasonable. But at the same time, the DOE declared that it had "confidence that Pantex will continue its outstanding work, while keeping stringent safety and security policies in place."

So why investigate?

The independent Project on Government Oversight, or POGO, gives a little more detail about the incident in a recent letter to the Department of Energy and a group of Senators charged with its oversight, complaining about the laxity of the "investigation" into Pantex:

Now we have learned that in March 2005, there was a “near-miss” event while disassembling another W56 warhead. Apparently the production technicians were using a faulty tool, putting too much pressure on the warhead. On November 29, 2006, Pantex was only fined $110,000 – 18 months after the near-miss incident. What was not made public at the time the fine was levied, however, is that according to safety experts knowledgeable about this event, it could actually have resulted in the detonation of the warhead. This incident was particularly dangerous because the W56 warhead was deployed in 1965, pre-dating the three basic enhanced safety features which reduce the possibility of an accidental detonation that are now required on more modern weapons. There are still several older warheads slated for dismantlement that do not include these enhanced features.

Also worth noting: after the November election, an anonymous group of employees wrote to the Pantex board about their fears regarding the company’s lax procedures and 70+ hours a week schedules. The letter (PDF) suggests why their working conditions, although not the most scintillating of topics, deserves our attention as the firm ramps up its nuke work this year by 50%:

If the worst were to happen at Pantex because of our quiet acceptance of adverse safety conditions, the consequences are almost too awful to speak, but must be declared: the loss of a billion-plus dollar facility that services our nation’s defense needs, the loss of the entire plant populace (3200 plus souls), the loss of the large populations in the immediate vicinity of the plant, the loss of a major east-west transportation corridor for the U.S., the contamination and therefore loss of major portions of the city of Amarillo, and the contamination and therefore loss of … approximately 200 thousand square miles of national agricultural assets and farming cities and communities in between.

In short, an accidental nuclear detonation at Pantex … could bring the nation to its knees.

Pantex says the allegation of a near detonation is a falsehood, but also insisted that their procedures were up to par and employees were not working long, exhausting hours.

Who do you believe?