.News Update 3/6/09

Unresolved Questions About LANL Plutonium Inventory

March 6, 2009

In a recent Department of Energy (DOE) memo to Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) concerning the annual nuclear criticality safety report, DOE criticized LANL's lack of effective management of its materials. DOE expressed concern that plutonium-handling practices are so poor that they may be threatening LANL's ability to function at all.

Recent events, such as the January theft of three LANL computers from an employee's home, point to a severe discrepancy in LANL security. Not only have 13 LANL computers been lost or stolen in the past year, but also these contribute to a total of 67 computers that are currently missing. DOE criticized their handling of the situation, as LANL decided to regard the theft as a property management issue, disregarding the threat to cyber security, a potentially more serious problem.

The newest DOE memo is in response to an "inventory difference" at Technical Area 55, a plutonium research and processing facility. Due to deficiencies in the system that keeps track of the plutonium and highly enriched uranium stores, the inventory came up lacking an amount of plutonium. In its February 23rd letter, DOE pointed out that the unaccounted-for plutonium "exceeded alarm limits." LANL tried to downplay the loss, pointing to their "strong and effective physical security" as proof that the plutonium cannot have been stolen. However, even if LANL does not suspect theft, as they cannot locate the plutonium, there is no proof that the plutonium did not leave the facility.

DOE sent a Special Review Team to LANL to evaluate its material control and accountability operation. DOE found much room for improvement, including "inaccuracies in accounting, lack of adherence to requirements," and that "key personnel in critical positions lacked a basic understanding of fundamental [material control and accountability] concepts." The DOE memo set out specific areas for improvement and described the lack of actions taken to address previously stated concerns as "disappointing." The memo stressed the importance of taking steps to remedy existing issues, saying that DOE "cannot overemphasize the importance of resolving these issues in a timely manner in order to regain confidence in our essential checks and balances for protecting special nuclear material."

Peter Stockton, Senior Investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, an independent nonprofit organization that investigates government misconduct, notes the difficulty of dealing with plutonium that you cannot find. He said, "It's fairly clear that the inventory list indicates that the material is in a certain spot, in a particular vault, and when they go to check, it's not there." More information can be found at the Project on Government Oversight website at http://www.pogo.org.

Scott Kovac, of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, raised additional concerns about the unknown location of the plutonium. He said, "This still would be a cause for concern because they do not know where it is. If too much plutonium accidentally ends up in too close of a proximity, it could initiate a dangerous nuclear criticality event."

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