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Stolen Nuclear Material Exposes Larger Issue of Government Accountability

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San Antonio law enforcement still hasn't found nuclear material stolen from the car of Idaho National Laboratory contractors. (Idaho National Laboratory/Flickr)
San Antonio law enforcement still hasn't found nuclear material stolen from the car of Idaho National Laboratory contractors. (Idaho National Laboratory/Flickr)
 By Eric Tegethoff - Producer, Contact
July 30, 2018

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – In 2017, security experts from the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory had a small amount of nuclear material stolen from their rental car while retrieving it in Texas.

The plutonium and cesium, materials used to make a nuclear bomb, were taken while the two specialists slept in a San Antonio hotel. The material hasn't been found.

The Department of Energy says it was a negligible amount – much less radioactive than a smoke detector, in fact.

But Patrick Malone, who first covered the story for the Center for Public Integrity, says this isn't an isolated incident.

"The more important fact here that we were trying to get at is how little accountability there is when the government loses nuclear materials relative to civilian materials that are lost, which are regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as opposed to the Department of Energy," Malone states.

An Energy Department representative says Idaho laboratory personnel reported the San Antonio incident immediately to the agency. It adds that local law enforcement is looking for the material, which is about the size of a dime, and that the public was never at risk.

However, Malone says the government rarely discloses incidents where it loses nuclear material and that there's no firm number for how much nuclear material is unaccounted for.

The closest estimate Malone says he can find is a 2009 report from the Energy Department's Inspector General.

"In that report, they identified at least five nuclear-warheads' worth of highly enriched uranium and plutonium alone that on paper was listed as safely stored and protected by the Department of Energy that could not be found,” he relates. “I mean, it's missing."

Malone says the material tends to go missing in small amounts, getting caught in national laboratories' ductwork, classified as waste and disposed of without being inventoried or diverted in some unclear way.

Malone notes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission closely regulates civilian stocks and recently fined Idaho State University $8,500 for losing an amount of plutonium comparable to that lost in San Antonio.

However, Malone says in the U.S. government's case, the Energy Department awarded the contractor that lost the material in San Antonio 97 percent of available bonuses at the end of 2017.

"As far as the Department of Energy is concerned, there was no enforcement action, there was no fine against this contractor, and they basically handed this contractor almost every single dime that they possibly could have gotten for their performance in 2017," Malone states.

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