Workers at the Pantex Plant last month finished the largest concrete pour to date on the High Explosives Pressing Facility, completing the last of the elevated soffits, which are part of the roof deck/second story of the building.
The pour marked the completion of approximately 50 percent of the construction on the 45,000 square-foot facility, which will combine high explosives operations from numerous outdated buildings into one state-of-the-art facility which will help to bolster Pantex’s status as the DOE’s High Explosives Center of Excellence for HE manufacturing.
Construction of the $65 million facility is expected to be complete next year. The construction effort is being managed by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and the design effort/plant support is being led by B&W Pantex/CH2MHill.
Don Cook, NNSA’s deputy administrator for Defense Programs, last week spoke to Pantexans about the future mission of Pantex and the critical role the plant will play in maintaining the nation’s stockpile for decades to come. During the visit, Cook congratulated some of the 100-plus Pantexans who helped to secure the plant and conduct recovery operations during and after the Feb. 25 blizzard that dropped more than 19 inches on the Amarillo area.
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.”
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.”
Ability to course correct at design sets new enterprise standard
Operations at half a dozen aging Pantex buildings will come together under one roof at the High Explosives Pressing Facility (HEPF), which is expected to be complete in November 2013. The new facility will greatly reduce the movement of high explosives at Pantex, increasing safety and aiding production, as high explosives moves can restrict other Plant operations.
What sets HEPF apart from other facilities constructed at Pantex is the technological advances in design on which engineers have capitalized. The 3D Building Information Model (BIM) approach, provided by B&W Pantex and CH2M Hill, was employed to ensure all aspects of the facility were captured in the design. The design tool optimizes coordination in systems-intensive facilities
and allows the team to “see” critical interfaces between structure, systems, and operating equipment.
“It enables us to derive material quantities both as total and installed counts, compare against the contractor’s invoices and review proposed design changes as well as field deviances to keep control of the overall and detailed design,” said Steve Forman, project engineer. “This is
groundbreaking for maintaining construction progress.”
The HEPF 3D BIM was so successful during the design phase of the project that DOE supported funding to maintain the 3D BIM throughout the four-year construction period. This allows for the model to be updated daily, weekly or monthly, as needed, to keep it an ongoing “as-built” that reflects real-time changes in the field. On project completion, Pantex Maintenance will use the BIM to enhance maintenance capabilities throughout the life of the facility, which should result
in significant cost savings, according to David McCown, maintenance manager.
“The 3D BIM made it possible to correct utility and system conflicts during the design phase of the project and eliminated 500 Requests for Information during construction that the contractor would have submitted, which would have impacted cost and schedule of the project and ultimately startup of the facility. An independent government estimate determined that these
cost savings were between $7 and $10 million dollars,” said Rodney Whisenhunt, project manager.
According to Fabian Thomas, NNSA Production Office federal project director, the 3D design has pioneered a new approach to the design and construction of future industrial facilities. “The HEPF 3D BIM is the new standard and has changed the method that Line Item Projects, those greater than $20 million, will be planned and executed at Pantex as well as throughout the NNSA,” he said.
HEPF 3D BIM was selected as a finalist within the category “Innovation in Industrial Facilities” in the Bentley BE Awards, ranking it one of the top three design projects in the competition for Best Practices for Sustaining Infrastructure, according to Robert Cole, program manager.
The HEPF project, constructed by Kiewit, managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and supported by the B&W Pantex project management team, is on budget and on schedule. Startup and commissioning are projected to finish ahead of schedule in April 2016.
When completed, the HEPF will provide increased levels of protection for workers, improve pressing operation efficiencies, eliminate single points of failure for the pressing process and support the U.S. Department of Energy’s High Explosives Center of Excellence for manufacturing at Pantex.