Nuclear Power Failure?

Nuclear bombs and missiles in the U.S. arsenal contain batteries manufactured by a defense contractor whose workers say knowingly produced faulty batteries, CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales reports.

Special batteries made by Eagle Picher Technologies of Joplin, Mo. power the guidance systems of many U.S. weapons — from antitank missiles to cruise missiles to the "smart bombs" used in Afghanistan.

If the batteries don't work, weapons can go off target with disastrous results.

Nearly 20 former and current employees tell CBS News Eagle Picher covered up manufacturing problems and test failures — and shipped out defective batteries.

"The attitude was: regardless of what the test results were, let's meet the deadline," said a male employee who did not want to be identified.

Complete Coverage
  • Smart Bombs Made Dumb?
    Read last month's CBS News report on problems with smart bomb guidance systems.
  • Bad Batteries To Blame?Part two of Vince Gonzales' Eagle Picher investigation.
  • Bombs Astray More workers come forward to talk about alleged problems with bomb batteries.
  • Eagle Picher is also the top supplier of one other line of very important batteries — batteries that power America's ultimate weapons: nuclear bombs and missiles.

    Defective batteries have been found at Sandia National Labs, where the Department of Energy tests and assembles nuclear weapons components.

    In one instance last year, CBS News learned that batteries built for the test version of the W78 nuclear warhead were found to have "leakage." A key chemical powder also did not meet Sandia Labs' specifications, "indicating the manufacturer had not properly processed" the battery. The lab "declared the batteries unacceptable for use."

    Toni Goodwin used to test Eagle Picher's chemical powders. She says the powder often failed quality control tests and she would order it discarded, but, "I know for a fact a lot of it went in the batteries," she said.

    Which could lead to battery failures. To assure quality for their nuclear components, Sandia Labs sent pre-mixed chemicals to the Eagle Picher plant, but employees say they didn't always go into Sandia batteries.

    "Themixed and matched them in any batteries they wanted to," said a female employee who also wanted not to be identified.

    Lab officials confirm at least one instance where chemicals were switched. They stress there has not been a battery failure in a deployed warhead in more than three years.

    Failures have been caught before warheads made it to the missiles, however. That's important because the batteries supply that power that initiates the nuclear detonation sequence.

    But Sandia Lab officials tell CBS News, overall, they're happy with Eagle Picher's products.

    Like the smart weapons used in Afghanistan, Eagle Picher's batteries also power the guidance systems of nuclear strike missiles such as the Minuteman.

    In October, the company lost a bid to continue making those Minuteman batteries. The military said a "number of delinquencies" and Eagle Picher's "poor record" justified awarding the contract to a competitor — even though the price was higher.

    Employees say they tried to speak out about problems at the plant.

    "In fact, my boss at the time was told to shut me up, after I spoke up in that one meeting," said Goodwin.

    "I was told that maybe my job depended on whether or not I would go along with the actions of the company," said an employee.

    Two military inquiries are underway and employees are talking to investigators since the company, they say, wouldn't listen.

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