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Project on Government Oversight




Los Alamos Admits Losing Plutonium

June 20, 2003 


Los Alamos National Lab (LANL) admits losing plutonium after POGO released an investigative lead Wednesday to reporters tipping them off to allegations that two vials of plutonium are missing.

In a press release Wednesday, Los Alamos acknowledged "the Laboratory's inability to fully account for two low-purity analytical samples of plutonium-oxide."

While LANL Director Peter Nanos minimized the potential danger posed by the missing plutonium, a 1995 Lawrence Livermore study concluded that ".08 milligrams inhaled will have 100% probability of causing a fatal cancer." The amount of missing material at LANL would provide tens of thousands of times that amount.

Although the Livermore study concluded that plutonium particles are typically too large to be readily inhaled, the Department of Energy Handbook on Airborne Release Fractions indicates that non-weapons grade material cannot be discounted as potentially dangerous to humans if the particles are broken down by a blast from a high energy source. Sources tell POGO that a dirty bomb could be such an energy source.

A May 2003 General Accounting Office report concluded there are dangers to losing even non-weapons grade plutonium 239, like that missing at LANL.

"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," the GAO said in a report letter to Representative Daniel K. Akaka, Ranking Minority Member of the House Subcommittee on Financial Management.

"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," the letter said.

"LANL officials want us to trust them, but their record on keeping track of nuclear materials is suspect," said POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian. "It is ironic that Los Alamos trains International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors how to track special nuclear materials around the world, yet they can't keep it straight at home."

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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