As the Department of Energy investigated over the next three years, the same lab — one of 10 nuclear weapons-related sites that contain radioactive materials in addition to the usual hazards found in industrial settings — had two more serious accidents, both blamed on insufficient safety protocols.
But when the time came for regulators to take action against the company in charge of the lab, officials decided against a financial penalty. They waived a $412,500 fine they had initially proposed, saying Sandia Corp., a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin (LMT), had made “significant and positive steps … to improve Sandia’s safety culture.”
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This wasn’t a rare outcome. Energy Department documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity make clear that the nation’s eight nuclear weapons labs and plants and two sites that support them remain dangerous places to work but their corporate managers often face relatively slight penalties after accidents.
Workers have inhaled radioactive particles that pose lifetime cancer threats. Others received electrical shocks or were burned by acid or in fires. They have been splashed with toxic chemicals and cut by debris from exploding metal drums.
Energy Department reports blame an array of causes, including production pressures, incorrect work procedures, poor communication, inadequate training, insufficient supervision and inattention to risk.
But the private companies that the government pays to run the facilities rarely suffer serious financial penalties, even when regulators conclude the companies committed mistakes or paid inadequate attention to safety. Low fines leave taxpayers to finance most of the cleanup and repair of contaminated sites after accidents that officials said never should have happened.
During a yearlong investigation built on a review of thousands of pages of records and interviews with dozens of current and former government officials and contractor employees, the Center for Public Integrity found:
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. Follow Peter Cary, Patrick Malone and R. Jeffrey Smith on Twitter: @PeterACary, @pmalonedc, @rjsmithcpi and @Publici