When the biggest blizzard in 70 years is bearing down on your nuclear weapons facility, you’d better have a good plan and a dedicated group of people to execute that plan.
The Pantex Plant was fortunate to have both those elements in place on February 25 when a massive blizzard dumped 19.1 inches of snow – the second highest total ever recorded in Amarillo – on the plant. To make matters worse, 70-mile-per-hour winds whipped up drifts ten feet high.
More than 100 dedicated Pantexans spent the next 48 hours helping to dig out and secure the plant, enabling the nation’s primary nuclear weapons assembly plant to return to operations after only two days of lost work.
Most importantly, the massive recovery effort and return to work were accomplished without a single lost time injury and no substantial damage to facilities or property.
Forecasters were predicting the looming blizzard could be a record breaker, so the Pantex Yard Group broke out the snow plan and started looking for volunteers several days before the snow started falling. Nearly 30 members of the Yard Group stepped up to help ensure the plant could weather the storm. They were joined by more than 100 Security Police Officers, firefighters, plant shift superintendents, equipment mechanics and emergency services dispatchers who were prepared to ride out the storm.
“It just shows how selfless our people are, because every one of them had families that were snowed in while they were out here,” said Plant Maintenance Department Manager Lew Monroe.
“They made a conscious decision to be here to help ensure this facility recovered and returned to operation.”
Operations at the Plant were suspended late Feb. 24 in advance of the storm, and when it finally arrived, snow quickly overwhelmed the efforts of the Yard Group. Heavy snow was compounded by howling winds that created huge drifts and reduced visibility to essentially zero. Snow accumulated so quickly and so deeply that four-wheel-drive security vehicles and even a fire truck became stuck in the snow.
After a couple hours of working in whiteout conditions, the Yard Group was forced to retreat indoors and hunker down. As soon as the snow stopped, workers moved out into the howling wind with heavy equipment to start clearing paths through the drifts.
To ensure safety, the workers operated in teams of two or three to start clearing the 57 miles of paved roads and 28,000 linear feet of sidewalks scattered across the 16,000-acre site. David Taylor, yard group supervisor, said many of the equipment operators have decades of experience at Pantex and know the plant like the back of their hand.
“All of our crews who volunteered to come out take great pride in what they do,” Taylor said. “They see it as a service to this country to make sure this Plant is taken care of.”
The crews immediately focused on opening critical areas of the plant to ensure security and emergency services were able to move freely. The battle was nonstop, as the winds continued to whip the snow around, often requiring roads to be plowed three or four times. The snow caused significant issues with the electrical distribution system, requiring several of the plant’s high voltage teams of electricians to brave the weather to help keep the electrical system at the plant operational.
For 48 hours, work crews battled the elements, working long shifts and sleeping where they could before finally being able to declare the plant open for operations Wednesday morning.
“As these guys were leaving the plant, they were glad to go and get some rest. But a lot of them were still worried about whether they’d done enough,” said Yard Group Supervisor Vance Morrison. “That tells you just about all you need to know about their dedication.”
World Trade Center steel is monument's focal point
Each year, the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 tragedy brings America together to remember the bravery of both first responders and everyday heroes. This year, Pantexans gathered to unveil a monument years in the making featuring salvaged steel from the World Trade Center.
Pantex 9/11 memorial
In a ceremony outside the Pantex Fire Department, a memorial was dedicated. Etched in marble, flanked by two quartz towers and topped with a piece of steel from the World Trade Center, the memorial to all who lost their lives in the attack has now become a permanent part of the landscape at Pantex.
“It is extremely appropriate that we place this memorial in front of the building that houses our first responders, because it serves as a symbol of our gratitude for the service they provide to this Plant,” Mark Padilla, Assistant Manager for Programs and Projects with the NNSA Production Office (NPO), said. “It also serves as a bridge between our first responders and the first responders who gave their lives on that fateful day.”
Efforts to create the monument at Pantex began in October 2009 with a letter to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey requesting a piece of the World Trade Center for a memorial monument. Once onsite, the steel was cut in Pantex’s own Machine Shop.
“It is important that we can visually see something tangible and realize that what we do is important to our freedom and the American way of life,” said Donovan Morgan, Pantex Fire Department battalion chief, who spearheaded the memorial initiative.
Craft Supervisor and member of the Navy Reserve John Herrera oversaw work done on the steel in the Machine Shop. “I revere the World Trade Center steel just as I would a piece of steel from the USS Arizona,” he said. “On the USS Arizona, we had military personnel from the Navy and the Marines die on board when it sank. At WTC, we had civilians die from the deliberate attack.”
“During the attack at Pearl Harbor, the sleeping giant awoke,” said Herrera. “During the attack at WTC, it united all fellow Americans, both civilians and serviceman, as brothers and sisters. It changed the way we live and made us more aware of the existence of terrorism around the world. As I walk past the WTC memorial, I will remember the civilians that died on that day and the dark moments this nation has endured.”
In addition to display in the monument, pieces of the salvaged World Trade Center steel are now displayed onsite at the NNSA Production Office building and at the Pantex Visitors Center.
W80, Mod 0 undergoes dismantlement
Back in the day, men worked the production line at Pantex. Then came the W80, the first weapons program in which assembly and disassembly were performed by women. Groundbreaking women, dubbed the “80s Ladies,” seized the opportunity to gain the skills
necessary to perform mechanical work.
Called the “common warhead,” the W80 was developed as a multi-service, multi-application weapon and is used in a majority of nuclear-armed U.S. Air Force and Navy missiles.
One of the first women to enter the field in 1979, Peggy Crow, left her clerical job for a position as an assembler/inspector on the W80 program with the goal of earning more money.
“A woman really had to work hard to prove her worth and value,” Crow said. “One thing easier for women was using their hands in small places to complete a process. Also, women were generally more detailed oriented. In the early years in the production area, women had to be resilient
and very open-minded.”
June Cooley recalls a spirit of teamwork and remembers the ladies working together for a common goal. “We had a good work ethic and took pride in doing a good job,” she said. “This took place during the Cold War and there was a common theme among the workers – ‘If we ever have to use one of these, and it gets through, it better work.’”
Bobbye Koenig preferred working with “girls” because guys had a tendency to take the tools and do the job while women watched. “It wasn’t their fault, most guys are raised that way – men did man’s work and women did woman’s work. The bad part of that deal was our work was mopping floors, sweeping and cleaning parts. Give me the tools, I want to do the fun stuff,” said Koenig.
For many, the production line was a jumping-off point for their careers. In 1992, Crow went on to become the first woman in the NNSA enterprise to become a weapons trainer for the W80 program. Another 80s Lady, Betty Whitfield, gained experience with 12 weapons programs
while assigned to the line. “That experience got me where I am today,” said the quality engineer.
“There are so many more women on the line now performing the jobs once delegated only to men,” said Cheryl Phillips, former inspector. “It says something about the character of the women who came before, paving the way, making it possible for us to be able to perform these jobs.”
Today, women at Pantex serve as production technicians as well as engineers, scientists, technicians and managers.
“The years that I worked on ‘the Line’ are among my most cherished memories at Pantex,” said Twanda Taylor, former weapons inspector who carpooled with coworkers on the graveyard shift. “I interacted with coworkers who seemed like close-knit family who looked out for and helped
one another.” Added Wanda Williams, former assembly operator, “We were like a close family and still share the closeness.”
Seventy years ago this September, the first 500-pound bomb came off the assembly line at Pantex in Amarillo, Texas. And though the Plant’s mission has changed from weapons production to protection and preservation, the job of Securing America is as important today as it was in 1942.
A constant over time is the dedication of the Pantex workforce. Longevity speaks volumes, and the average tenure at Pantex is 15 years. This is high, according to a 2012 report from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, because the manufacturing industry as a whole averages
just six years of service.
Malcolm Clack, Applied Technology specialist, holds the lowest-number identification badge, a designation meaning he’s worked at Pantex longer than any other employee. The history of the Plant through his eyes underscores the mystery of the mission.
When Clack came to the Pantex Ordinance Plant in 1958 as a guard, he worked three months while waiting for his clearance. During that time, nobody talked about what went on at the Plant. When his security clearance finally came through, Clack’s supervisor asked him to patrol an
area where he previously did not have access. Because no one was available to show him where to go, he was given a hand-drawn map.
On entering the first cell on Clack’s new patrol route−by himself at 2 a.m.− he clearly remembers the eerie hum of the air conditioner. And then he spotted it. Though he wasn’t sure, what little Clack knew about nuclear weapons led him to believe he’d encountered one first
hand. Most surprising, he said, was that nobody had spoken a word about it.
“After I got my clearance, coworkers began to talk. All I knew was that I was here to do a job, whether it was ‘making soap’ or bombs,” Clack said. “People do good work at Pantex and it’s something that the country needs. I feel like we’re protecting the country so people
won’t mess with us.”
Administrative Specialist Linell Carter holds the distinction of being the woman with the lowest badge number at Pantex. Though her service time includes a break, Carter is in her 26th year. Over the years, she held various positions, but among Carter’s favorite was her
role as union steward in 1967.
“The life-changing things that the union was able to accomplish were very exciting,” Carter said. “We were able to get equal treatment for minority races, to kind of slow down sexual harassment, women to be able to have any job and pay just like the men, men to be able to take
leave when their babies were born just like the mother was allowed and several other accomplishments.”
During the Cold War, Carter said it was great to be a part of the protection of our country and our freedom. “The weapons that we provided gave such peace and stability to our troops that so many of them were able to come back to the U.S. to their lives here. All of it was totally
spine tingling,” she said.
Added George West, retired physicist with 42 years of service, “It cannot be denied that Pantex played a major role in winning the Cold War. If we did not do anything else, we convinced the Soviets, among others, that we had nuclear weapons, and that they were going to work
if we were forced to use them.”
by Paul Lamonica, 2012 Summer Intern
This year, the B&W Pantex Plastics Shop began formulating a new method of mixing polyurethane molded parts for explosives, coatings, seals, cushions, tool covers and more. The old method consisted of mixing the components in a generic “ice cream bucket.” After the correct amounts of materials were mixed together, the mixture would be carefully injected into the mold to form the needed part.
At first glance, this process appears simple, but it took approximately two to three hours to make one mold. In addition, the cleaning process could expose people to hazardous chemicals. Some of the molds formed bubbles and voids after the mixture was injected. After rising concerns about the old mixing method, the Plastics Shop knew that it was time to start researching better
Months were spent researching solutions, and the group discovered a revolutionary type of mixer. This eco-friendly system, known as the dynamic mixer, resolved all of the previous problems with the ice-cream-bucket method.
When the dynamic mixer arrived in February, the Plastics Shop teamed with West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) to give students the opportunity to be engaged with this research. The mixer is residing at the university for research purposes, and Stephanie Steelman, a polymer chemist in the Explosives Technology Division, is the project manager and principal investigator for the
Devin Cook and Matt Dolezal, both mechanical engineering majors at WTAMU, have been working on this project since the beginning of this year.
Cook, a senior, has been working on the mold designs and optimizing software specifically for the dynamic mixer. “Engineering today is mainly done on computer, and having knowledge of all this software and technology will benefit me in the future,” said Cook.
Dolezal, who graduated from WTAMU in May, has been working with the mechanical engineering and chemistry research of the project, although both work together on all areas of the project. “I really enjoy how much I’ve learned from this experience; I think the knowledge and
skill sets I’ve gained will help me greatly starting my career,” said Dolezal.
Using the dynamic mixer, it now takes only a few minutes to produce each mold. There is minimal cleanup with no exposure to chemicals and there are no bubbles within the mold. The largest mold, which takes about five pounds of material, requires only three to four minutes to fill.
The project will be finished later this year, and the mixer will reside at Pantex starting sometime in March. “The new mixer will save the Plant money in the form of time, raw materials and personnel resources,” Steelman said.
Each year, the old method cost to the Plant is approximately $100,000 just in packaging and weighing materials for the Plastics Shop to use. The dynamic mixer will allow the Plastics Shop to decrease raw material and rejected parts by at least 80 percent and reduce employee hours and resources repackaging raw materials, said Steelman.