LANL Loses Two Vials of Plutonium

* Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) this week announced that it has misplaced two vials of plutonium oxide, which may amount to as much as 2 grams of the dangerous radioisotope. LANL says that a classification error in 2002 lead to the misplacement of the vials, and that they were likely stored as transuranic waste.

Pete Nanos, LANL's director, said that the missing vials had only scientific value and pose no threat to the public. However, critics say that the missing vials are indicative of a more complex security problem at LANL. In recent years, critics have twice recommended that LANL implement a more thorough radionuclide accounting program.

Dr. Arjun Makhijani, of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) in Takoma Park, Maryland, argues that a disorganized radionuclide accounting system can be credited for the loss not only of the two vials, but also of nearly 1,700 pounds of plutonium that remain unaccounted for at LANL. Makhijani said, "They have a huge problem, and it is a security problem until they clean up their books. There are two sets of books on plutonium waste, one at headquarters and one at LANL, and the difference in accounting is [1,700 pounds]."

According to a 1996 Department of Energy (DOE) memo, LANL shows the highest discrepancies in plutonium tracking of any of their sites. The memo claims that the missing plutonium can be attributed to an inconsistency about what LANL considers waste and normal operating losses. That memo spurred DOE to consider revamping LANL's accounting methods, although the idea was not pursued.

Other concerns were raised during the Clean Air Act audits that are required by the settlement of the citizens' suit by Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (CCNS) against DOE for violations at LANL. In its 2000 report of the second audit, the Risk Assessment Corporation (RAC) criticized the radionuclide accounting methods used at LANL. The report found that, "At LANL, radionuclide receipt, use, transfer, disposal, and consequently emissions could be easily tracked and recorded for each ... technical area." The report recommended that LANL implement a sitewide radionuclide inventory database similar to their existing sitewide chemical database. However, LANL did not follow RAC's recommendation. RAC's third audit report in 2002 reiterated the recommendation, but LANL has yet to initiate a sitewide radionuclide inventory program.

CCNS's independent monitors of the Clean Air Act audits, IEER, recommends that LANL develop a sitewide accounting program, with quality assurance procedures, to be implemented by the facilities that directly use the radionuclides, even if the amounts are small. IEER reasoned that, "Only the full and engaged involvement of the personnel who are directly responsible for designing and carrying out these multifarious activities can be relied on to make valid estimates of usage. Yet, the attitude of at least some of the users ... indicates a lack of involvement needed to assure the scientific integrity of the result."

Dr. Makhijani said, "LANL managers seem to have developed a culture that is frequently not accountable, perhaps because they imagine that the lab consists of academic researchers doing pure science. Unfortunately, that's not a very good way to manage plutonium."

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