Los Alamos Ignores Warning Signs

Donald Brown Los Alamos
CBS
In the mountains of New Mexico, at 7,000 feet above sea level, is the government's top nuclear weapons facility. It is staffed by some of the world's best scientists — and least one tenacious whistleblower.

Don Brown gets paid to dig up problems at nuclear facilities so they can be quickly fixed. When he landed a job at Los Alamos in 2003, he figured, "I should be like the Maytag," Brown said. "I'd be thinking, well, gee, what can I do today?"

CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, who began investigating lax security at Los Alamos more than five years ago,

about the trouble he began seeing around every corner.

"I started finding problems that would stop any other nuclear facility in their tracks," he said.

Problems like 1,000 faulty welds in one nuclear building alone.

"It looks like it was welded with a Hershey Bar," Brown said.

Attkisson asked Brown how many suspect welds would be considered acceptable?

"At a nuclear facility? None," he said. "Zero. You don't want any. If you have a leak in a pipe that has nuclear materials or coolant, then that release could cause an accident — a nuclear accident."

Then there's lax security, like the lab worker who walked out with radioactive material that was never missed — until a thief recently broke into his garage and tried to steal it.

Should the public be concerned that an employee at Los Alamos can just walk out with radioactive material?

"I'm a citizen and I live in Los Alamos and I was concerned," Brown said.

That employee got reduced access and "counseling." And Brown said there are many more hidden dangers.

White Rock, a suburb of Los Alamos, is about three miles from a lab building containing radioactive material. You might think that building has all the protections a commercial nuclear facility would have to protect the public from a radioactive release, but you'd be wrong.

That area of the lab, known as TA-18, doesn't even have a basic "containment structure" to hold in radiation in case of a nuclear accident. Yet according to the government's own analysis, it could release fatal doses twice as high as Chernobyl: the worst nuclear accident in history. Other nuclear buildings at the Lab are vulnerable to earthquakes, airplane crashes and fire.

"If you're going to build a Wal-Mart in Santa Fe, you'd have more requirements at that Wal-Mart in Santa Fe than you did for the laboratory," Brown said.

Brown was so shaken by what he found at Los Alamos — and the apparent lack of concern by management — he sounded an unmistakable alarm in October.

He wrote what might be the most comprehensive critique ever put down on paper about Los Alamos, which left little doubt about his feelings. The report even asked: "Has the laboratory just been lucky that we have not experienced a nuclear catastrophe?"

He fired off copies to lab managers, the Energy Department and the University of California which operates the Lab for the government.

"The only response I got was the areas I had been given responsibilities to audit have been taken away from me," Brown said.

But the U.S. Department of Energy says it is investigating such concerns as those Brown raised.

Nobody from Lab management would be interviewed, but the National Nuclear Security Administration issued this statement: "The safety and security of our employees and their communities is the top priority of the National Nuclear Security Administration. Los Alamos National Laboratory has just undergone a thorough examination of its safety and security practices, including many of the issues raised by this particular employee."

Brown has now filed a lawsuit against the lab, and he joins a long list of whistleblowers at Los Alamos who say they, too, were retaliated against when they exposed dangers at the Lab. After 30 years in nuclear safety, he knows that going public about Los Alamos could be a career-ender. But he feels passionate about his plight.

"We're talking about people's lives," Brown said.

But he says the stakes are too high to keep silent.

Part II of Attkisson's report: Los Alamos Keeps Auditors Out Of X-Division.