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Northrop Grumman Inspector's Lies Raise Alarms
By christopher p. cavas
Published: 28 May 2009 21:29
More than 10,000 welded joints on at least eight U.S. submarines and a new aircraft carrier might need to be reinspected after the discovery by Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding that one of its inspectors had falsified inspection reports.
According to an internal report obtained by Defense News, the issue came to light May 14 when a welding inspector at the company's Newport News, Va., shipyard told a supervisor that a fellow inspector was initialing welds as OK without actually performing the inspections. Confronted by the supervisor, the offending inspector admitted to falsifying three weld inspections, all that same day.
Company officials rapidly began an internal investigation and notified the U.S. Navy's supervisor of shipbuilding of the situation, according to the report. On May 20, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) began its own investigation.
Northrop Grumman declined to reveal the employee's name, citing the ongoing personnel investigation. A company official did say May 28 that the employee had been initially suspended, then fired.
According to the report, a quick company review of the inspector's work showed that 12 other joints inspected by the employee that evening were satisfactory. But the ramifications of the falsified inspections rapidly grew beyond a single night's work.
"We have to go back and check everything this guy has ever touched," said one industrial source.
The employee had been certified to perform inspections in June 2005 and, according to the report, a review of the shipyard's welding database showed that in the following four years he inspected and signed off on more than 10,000 structural welding joints on at least nine ships.
Company officials said May 27 that the investigation of the employee's work could mean that all the joints would need reinspection or re-evaluation.
Types Of Tests
The offending inspector performed two types of non-destructive welds, according to the report: magnetic particle testing, known as MT testing, and penetrant inspection, or PT.
According to the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), MT testing uses an externally-applied magnetic field or electric current through a piece of metal. Iron particles are spread across the metal and, if a crack or other discontinuity is present, the iron particles will gather at the location of the discontinuity.
Penetrant testing uses a liquid to find surface breaks in a weld.
According to the report, the ships worked on by the inspector included the Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Missouri, California, Mississippi, Minnesota and John Warner, and the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush. The carrier and North Carolina and New Hampshire are in service, while the other subs are in various states of construction at Newport News and at the General Dynamics shipyards in Groton, Conn., and Quonset, R.I. The two shipbuilders share equally in building the submarines. Each shipyard builds specific sections of the submarines and ships the sections to the other yard. The shipbuilders alternate in assembling the hulls.
The inspector performed most of his work on the New Mexico (2,133 welds inspected), Missouri (3,169), California (2,002) and Mississippi (2,177). The smallest number of structural welds on any particular submarine was 23 on the New Hampshire and two on the North Carolina.
Just over 10 percent of the submarine welds were hull integrity, or SUBSAFE, joints involving critical parts. The inspector also performed 229 piping joint inspections on submarines.
There are many thousands of welds on each 7,800-ton submarine - more then 300,000, according to an Electric Boat Best Manufacturing Practices Web site.
But making sure that welding work is done correctly can be a matter of life and death.
"People take this really, really seriously," said one industry source. "Why? Because people don't want another Thresher. Nobody takes a chance."
The Thresher was a U.S. Navy submarine that sank in April 1963 when it was forced to dive below its crush depth and the hull imploded. All 129 men aboard the sub perished.
"The quality of our work is something we take very seriously," Northrop spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell-Jones said in a May 28 statement to Defense News. "We have rigorous quality management systems and established processes in place to inspect and evaluate the work we do in order to meet the demanding requirements for our products. In this case, in partnership with our customer, we are addressing the issue swiftly, openly, and with technical rigor, to address any issues about the quality and integrity of our products."
About 100 inspectors work at Newport News in the non-destructive test department, according to Mitchell-Jones. Their experience ranges from two years to more than 40 years.
Newport News and Electric Boat - the nation's only Navy submarine builders - each use a Shipyard Weld Status System (SWSS) to keep track of every weld on a ship. According to Electric Boat, those records include details of the weld such as the material type and thickness, what welding filler was used, and sign-off points for weld operators and inspectors.
The SWSS system was used by Newport News to identify the welds worked on by the inspector.
Previous Weld Issues
Welding is one of the most critical areas of modern shipbuilding, and the integrity of welding practices has been a serious issue since the building method first gained wide acceptance in the 1930s.
Newport News is still smarting from a welding filler issue that arose in fall 2007. Shipyard workers had used the wrong type of welding filler material on many pipe welds, and the company and the Navy were forced to re-examine a number of submarines, aircraft carriers and surface ships built or repaired at the shipyard. Northrop changed a number of workshop practices, and required mandatory training for all of its welders and welding foremen in the 19,000-strong workforce.
All shipboard reinspections were completed last year and the company submitted its corrective action plan to NAVSEA in April 2008. The issue is not closed, however.
"The weld filler metal investigation is still ongoing," NAVSEA spokeswoman Pat Dolan said May 28. "The final NAVSEA response for submarines will be completed by summer 2009. The response for aircraft carriers will be complete later in 2009. The welds on submarine and aircraft carrier hulls that were inspected show no evidence of any problems."
More than 2,000 welded joints have been inspected, a Navy source confirmed. Only one joint failed reinspection - due to improper welding filler material.
Both the Navy and Northrop Grumman emphasize there is no relation between the weld filler issue and the latest problem with the inspector.
"They were separate events," Dolan said. "The first issue dealt with the control of weld filler metal in some non-nuclear piping welds, while the second dealt with inspection of welds."
"This issue has no connection to the weld filler metal issue of 2007," Mitchell-Jones said. "The weld filler metal issue was a material issue, not an inspection issue."
Electric Boat spokesman Bob Hamilton declined to comment on the inspection issue and referred queries to Northrop Grumman and the Navy. But sources said EB representatives were involved in the investigation at Newport News.
""Electric Boat intends to cooperate with the Navy and Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding to the maximum extent possible in completing this technical evaluation and reinspection plan," Hamilton said May 28.
Northrop Grumman has developed an inspection plan of the offending inspector's work that will focus on hull integrity and SUBSAFE joints as a priority, followed by non-SUBSAFE joints, according to the internal report.
It is not clear what the nature is of the NCIS investigation.
"I can confirm that NCIS is investigating allegations made against a weld inspector but I cannot get into case specifics," NCIS spokesman Ed Buice said in a May 28 e-mail to Defense News. "NCIS does not comment on the details of ongoing investigations."