A container with about 2 grams of weapons-grade plutonium is missing from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the watchdog group Project On Government Oversight (POGO) reports.It's not nearly enough plutonium to make a bomb, POGO senior investigator Peter Stockton says. And far larger radioactive caches have disappeared in the past; in 1990, for example, investigators found 62 pounds worth of plutonium stuck in the air ducts of the Energy Department's now-closed Rocky Flats facility.But even this small amount is more than enough to generate serious concerns about how the troubled lab accounts for its nuclear material.According to a POGO press release:
The plutonium has been missing since 2001, but was only reported last week to Department of Energy (DOE) headquarters officials responsible for overseeing the Lab. DOE requires that any missing weapons-grade nuclear material a half-gram or more be reported.The fact that the missing material was not reported is a violation of department policy and raises serious questions about the level of confidence in the DOEs Material Control and Accountability system that tracks hundreds of tons of weapons grade nuclear material.A former DOE official advised POGO that even these small quantities of missing plutonium are a potential threat to public health and safety and are taken very seriously. DOE headquarters normally dispatches a "tiger team" from headquarters to investigate what happened to the material and who was responsible. In fact, in the past when quantities even as small as a half-gram of missing nuclear material was reported missing from other Lab facilities, investigators have conducted detailed searches of buildings and even dug up trash heaps, the former official said.In a statement, Los Alamos officials say that the material was found last week, and not in 2001, as POGO claims; that the plutonium mixture is not all that dangerous; and that all DOE reporting requirements were observed."This material has scientific and analytical research value, but is in a low hazard and threat category," Los Alamos Director George "Pete" Nanos says.The samples, nuclear material mixed with other inert elements, were stored in glass vials, according to the Lab's statement. They were part of ongoing experiments on how to best store nuclear waste.The vials were thrown out properly, Los Alamos contends -- put in transuranic waste drums. But the samples weren't Labeled right, and got mixed up in the Lab's databases.THERE'S MORE: Even non-weapons grade plutonium 239 can be a danger, a recent General Accounting Office report concludes:
If these sealed sources fell into the hands of terrorists, they could use them to produce a simple and crude, but potentially dangerous, weapon by packaging explosives, such as dynamite, with the radioactive material, which would be dispersed when the bomb went off...Depending on the type, amount, and form (powder or solid), the dispersed radioactive material could cause radiation sickness for people nearby and produce serious economic costs and psychological and social disruption associated with the evacuation and subsequent cleanup of the contaminated area.