Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
Sandia National Laboratories cut corners in the manufacture of a key component for U.S. nuclear warheads, government investigators have found.
In one case, engineers responsible for ensuring quality standards for the warhead parts were removed from their jobs because of a disagreement over the approach to ensuring the components met the exacting standards required for parts that go into the nuclear stockpile, according to the Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General.
The office Friday released a terse, one page summary of a classified report on the agency's investigation.
According to the sum-mary, the investigators were responding to an anonymous letter alleging "serious problems" with the way Sandia handled manufacturing of the parts, used in the Navy's W76 submarine-launched nuclear warhead.
Spokesman Michael Padilla issued a statement saying "only products with the highest quality" are provided by Sandia for the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
Sandia is responsible for manufacturing neutron generators, small devices that help jump-start a nuclear warhead's detonation. Because they decay over time, they must be routinely replaced.
In April 2001, Sandia went looking for a new supplier for one of the components needed for the W76 "after disagreements between Sandia and the existing supplier," according to the investigation report summary.
The new supplier "had no experience" making the nuclear weapon parts in question.
The change to a new supplier, according to the report, was made despite the fact that there was only a small number of parts left to be built.
Quality control standards for nuclear weapon parts are highly exacting, and the Inspector General's report questions whether those standards were met in the case of the W76 parts. For example, Sandia failed to follow procedures intended to ensure the new supplier was qualified to do the work, according to the report.
Sandia also dropped the requirement for a "pilot" manufacturing phase to screen out manufacturing problems, according to the report.
Padilla said the supplier selected for the work was the "best technically qualified and best value supplier," and that improvements in Sandia's procedures have been made in response to the issues raised by the Inspector General.