By Jim McBride, Amarillo.com
Three Pantex employees remain on paid administrative leave for violating nuclear safety procedures after workers failed to keep a close lookout on a nuclear warhead for a few minutes last week, a top Pantex official said Wednesday.
A glance at the ruleThe incident violated longstanding "buddy system" rules aimed at preventing unauthorized access to nuclear weapons.
Pantex's "two-person coverage" rules require that at least two trained employees with proper security clearances be able to detect any incorrect or unauthorized acts around a nuclear explosive when facilities are accessible to employees.
Source: B & W Pantex
B & W Pantex President and General Manager Dan Swaim said workers failed to keep proper visual surveillance of the warhead for less than eight minutes on Jan. 10.
A fourth employee entered the area and discovered the violation, which was promptly corrected. The warhead remained under protective cover during the incident in the Material Access Area, a secure and well-guarded area of the plant.
"Two people remained sitting in a corridor-type area, and the third person performing her job moved down doing tooling inventory, entered that area and was out of the line of sight of two technicians who actually had custody of the weapon at that time," Swaim said.
"She had both a positive obligation not to move outside of their zone of coverage, and they had a positive obligation to remain in observation of the weapon and her while she was doing her inventory work."
Investigators also checked an electronic security access control system and determined that no unauthorized individuals entered the area.
Swaim said the contractor and the federal government's Pantex Site Office are investigating the incident.
"Our employees are honest and reliable. They are cooperating in every aspect of that," he said. "We will fully understand the circumstances that led to this and take any action that we deem appropriate at that time."
The Energy Department will determine whether B & W Pantex will face any potential fines for the incident, he said.
An external corporate review team that will include representatives from two national weapons labs will examine the incident also, Swaim said.
"We take it very, very seriously. There was no access to the weapon. There was no breach of physical security. The area was behind lock and key in our security system at all times," Swaim said.