1. Archive

Study: Weapons plant poses 'no undue risk'

The federal nuclear weapons plant in Pinellas County doesn't pose "undue risk" to anyone, but it has suffered more than its share of environmental lapses, according to a recent federal review. "In most instances documentation is absent or incomplete, procedures are outdated or unused, and lines of authority are not clear," a draft report of the survey says. "The assessment does indicate a lack of attention to environmental management for a facility with the size and type of operations of the Pinellas plant."

Despite the criticisms, a plant spokesman said the report generally gives high marks to the plant and its workers.

"The survey was very, very in depth, and I think, considering that, we did real well," said David Ingle, the plant's safety and occupational health manager. "There are things we need to improve on ... (but) it's important to point out that 70 to 80 percent of the things they mentioned had already been identified prior to the team arriving."

The draft report on the Pinellas plant, released last week, is part of the U.S. Department of Energy's nationwide examination of its facilities and their environmental problems. The Pinellas plant, on the northwest corner of Bryan Dairy and Belcher roads near Pinellas Park, is owned by the Energy Department and operated by a division of General Electric Co. The plant makes triggering devices for nuclear weapons.

The Pinellas report was prepared by a team of about 20 Energy Department officials, consultants and industry experts.

Among the significant environmental findings in the draft report: The Pinellas plant has not obtained state or local permits for any of its 500 or so potential air pollution sources. Plant officials also don't know which of the sources might need permits, the report says.

The emissions include radioactive gases, such as tritium and krypton.

But the report says the radioactive emissions are not significant.

Plant operators have not demonstrated full compliance with federal rules on documenting radiation emissions. However, the plant's radiation controls are "generally sound and ensure that the public and environment are adequately protected," the report states.

Workers in the past have improperly added small amounts of radioactive waste to other kinds of waste so they could justify shipping all the waste to a disposal facility intended only for radioactive waste.

Workers have contaminated ground water under the plant with toxic

industrial chemicals.

Nevertheless, the report found no environmental hazards at the plant serious enough to pose "undue risk to public health."

Several of the deficiencies already have been corrected, the report says.

The report blames some of the laxness on a longstanding mind-set within the federal weapons bureaucracy that has stressed production over other concerns.

"The probable root causes can be traced to an emphasis on production which has traditionally overshadowed interest in fully complying with environment, health and safety requirements," the report states.

However, the report also notes that management changes in the past few years have decentralized authority at the Pinellas plant. "This culture change ... offers promise for an enhanced recognition" of environmental and safety concerns, the report states.