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NASA OIG: Review of NASA's Explosives Safety Program

Status Report From: NASA Office of Inspector General
Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013

image Full Report

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin today released a report that assesses the Agency's efforts to protect its people, property, and the general public from the potentially catastrophic effects of explosives, propellants, and pyrotechnics - collectively known as energetic materials. From launching vehicles into space to the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, energetic materials are an integral part of many NASA missions.

This Office of Inspector General (OIG) review found that NASA's Explosives Safety Program was poorly managed and exposed personnel and facilities to unnecessary risk. Specifically, we identified 155 violations of regulations, policies, procedures, and processes involving unsafe conditions and practices - some of which could have resulted in significant damage, injury, or death to NASA personnel, contractors, and the public.

For example, we found incompatible explosive materials stored in the same location, unsafe distances between occupied buildings and storage facilities containing energetic materials, inaccurate or incomplete inventories of energetic materials, and improper inspection procedures for vehicles used to transport these materials. In our judgment, a lack of oversight, resources, and training at both the local and Headquarters level contributed to the deficiencies we identified.

At Stennis Space Center, we identified a building that did not meet the basic requirements for storing explosive materials - namely, it lacked adequate firewalls, operational shields, a blast-resistant roof, and containment structures. Moreover, the building was being used to store incompatible energetic materials. Because personnel did not appropriately account for the combined effects of these materials, the safe separation distance between the energetic materials and an adjoining building was miscalculated. According to OIG estimates, if the stored materials had detonated more than 40 percent of the occupied building would have sustained structural damage and 15 percent of the personnel inside could have sustained fatal injuries.

At the Wallops Flight Facility, which stores approximately 100,000 pounds of high-order, mass detonating explosive materials, we observed hundreds of rockets containing potentially explosive propellant stacked in close proximity to each other in bunkers. NASA personnel we spoke with had never assessed the physical condition of these rockets, all of which were manufactured between the late 1950s and early 1970s. The stacked placement, coupled with the unknown condition of the propellant, increased the probability of a catastrophic event because a single rocket igniting or exploding could have set off a chain-reaction of detonations.

At NASA's White Sands Test Facility the OIG observed two shipping crates containing lead azide that appeared to be decomposing and therefore had potentially become highly unstable and sensitive to any sudden movement.

To NASA's credit, personnel at each site quickly addressed the issues we uncovered that presented an immediate threat to personnel and facilities.

To improve NASA's Explosives Safety Program and better ensure the safety and protection of personnel, property and the environment the OIG made seven recommendations, including that NASA initiate a review of management, storage, and handling procedures at all Centers and Facilities to identify deficiencies, take corrective actions, and share best practices; immediately conduct an Agency-wide inventory of energetic materials and initiate an investigation of any missing materials; and correct deficiencies regarding the qualifications and training of personnel who work in the Program. NASA concurred with the recommendations.

The full report can be found on the OIG's website at http://oig.nasa.gov/ under "Reading Room" or at the following link: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/oig/hq/audits/reports/FY13/IG-13-013.pdf

Please contact Renee Juhans at (202) 358-1220 if you have questions.

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