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Atomic Alert
Monday March 27 2000
Reporter Gerry Northam
Producer Fiona Campbell

Panorama reveals that two of the three companies in the new consortium due to take over control of the Atomic Weapons Establishment have seriously blemished long-term safety records.

The programme includes the first interview with a nuclear whistleblower at a top-secret plant in Idaho, who was sacked after raising the alarm over poor safety standards. A month after he was sacked, a worker was killed in an avoidable accident.

This week the government has to confirm its decision whether on not to allow the new consortium to take over the running of Britain's Aldermaston nuclear weapons site from April 1st - the only place in Britain where nuclear bombs are manufactured.

While British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL) has been severely criticised over lax safety procedures, Panorama reveals that US firm Lockheed Martin has an even worse safety record.

The UK government originally announced last December that it had awarded the contract to manage Aldermaston from April 1st this year to the consortium including BNFL and Lockheed Martin.

Scroll down for related links

The programme has visited three sites in the US where the American defence giant has suffered six major accidents in recent years, been heavily criticised by several government reports and where its operating licences have not been renewed. The company has also been accused of widespread environmental pollution.

The Idaho Plant
In Idaho, Lockheed Martin's management of a nuclear reactor development plant was criticised by the government following a fatal accident in 1998.

Jim Osborne, a safety worker at the plant, had been sacked by the company as retaliation for his disclosure of , what the DOE called "a dangerous lack of safety inspections".
Jim Osborne. Safety worker Idaho plant
Speaking out for the first time to Panorama, Osborne tells the programme: "I went from doing 45-50 inspections per month to a maximum of two [which] has a significant reduction in safety. I told them that we were going to kill or injure somebody severely and I was told by my manager at that time that it was none of my concern that if we did kill somebody or injure somebody that management would handle it." Mr Osborne has been reinstated after the DOE report vindicated him.

Following the US government's official verdict that the accident was "avoidable" and revealed an organisational safety problem the Department of Energy refused to extend Lockheed Martin's contract.
I told them that we were going to kill or injure somebody severely and I was told by my manager at that time that it was none of my concern that if we did kill somebody or injure somebody that management would handle it

Jim Osborne, Safety worker at the Idaho plant

A government memo obtained by Panorama says that the company's managers "have not established an underlying culture of rigor, discipline and sustaining leadership. " It added "a serious question remains whether Lockheed Martin has the necessary commitment to act in the Government's interests at all times."

Y12 Plant in Oak Ridge
Protestors at the Oak Ridge plant

Lockheed Martin runs the US cousin of Aldermaston. The Y12 plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee is responsible for the manufacture and refurbishment of the thermonuclear components of nuclear weapons.

  • In 1994, a safety audit uncovered 1284 separate violations of criticality safety - the risk of setting off a critical incident leading to a nuclear chain reaction.
  • The government's safety board inspection showed "the apparent breakdown of administrative controls"
  • Following the report, the whole plant was shut down, and Lockheed Martin have still not been given permission to restart the most dangerous operations using uranium.

    Ralph Hutchison, the Presbyterian minister who has led protests against the site, tells Panorama that these 1284 "non-compliances" meant "that it wasn't just one mistake, it meant that they had an utter and complete breakdown of their criticality systems."

    Explosion at Y12 injures 10
    Last December, a week after the UK government awarded the Lockheed Martin/BNFL consortium the management contract for Aldermaston, there was an explosion in the Y12 uranium plant, which injured ten workers.

    The US Government report on that explosion called safety management "significantly deficient," and said that had the company learnt proper lessons from previous accidents, the explosion need not have happened.

    Dr David Michaels, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy tells Panorama that "on site, in that building, were materials unused by workers or management , were materials that said 'don't do exactly what you're doing'. He added "the safety management system that we demand of our contractors, wasn't followed. We don't think it [the explosion] was a problem of the individual workers at all. It was simply a management problem."
    We don't think it [the explosion] was a problem of the individual workers at all. It was simply a management problem."

    Dr David Michaels, U.S Secretary of Energy on the explosion at the Oak Ridge Plant plant

    Paducah, Kentucky
    Lockheed Martin ran the uranium enrichment plant at Paducah, Kentucky between 1984 and 1998. Although they inherited a heavily polluted site, environmental contamination worsened during their management, according to Panorama.

    Environmental Consultant, John Tillson, tells the programme, "they allowed it [the pollution] to spread and get worse, and once it gets worse it's economically impossible to clean up."

    As long ago as 1990, a Department of Energy report found that "environmental monitoring programs were not being effectively implemented."

    The Lamb family well has been locked by the Government

  • Ronald Lamb, a local car mechanic, drew his water from his family well. After his family began to feel unwell from drinking the water, the government sealed up the well and piped in water from a supply ten miles away.

  • Warren Smith, a local farmer has a creek flowing through his land which has been fenced off as a public hazard polluted by toxic waste and radioactivity. Below his land is an underground lake of radio-active water spreading at around a foot a day.

    Along with other residents, Smith is now suing Lockheed Martin, which has told the BBC that it "finds the allegations without merit" and intends "to contest them vigorously in court"

    Related links:

    Natural Resources Defense Council

    Carson versus US Department of Energy

    US Department of Energy

    British Nuclear Fuels

    Lockheed Martin


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