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Project on Government Oversight




Radioactive Package Shipped Fedex to Pennsylvania

August 8, 2005 


A Federal Express shipment to Pennsylvania tested positive for a deadly radioactive material coming from a contaminated worker at Los Alamos National Laboratory, according to an updated occurrence report obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). The report sheds further light on a nuclear contamination incident which has also spread to Kansas and Colorado, besides the Lab’s home state of New Mexico. A copy of the report can be viewed here.

The radioactive package was shipped by Federal Express on July 20 as “a non-hazardous, domestic unclassified shipment” and arrived on July 21 at Bettis Laboratory part of the joint Department of Energy-Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program. As a result, the package could have contaminated Federal Express workers and other packages.

Surprisingly, it took Los Alamos two full days after it discovered the initial contamination incident to notify Bettis Laboratory that it was in possession of an unmarked radioactive package.

“This is another example of sloppy safety and security at Los Alamos,” said Peter Stockton, a senior investigator at POGO and a former Department of Energy official.

The nuclear contaminant involved, Americium-241, is far more deadly than “normal” plutonium if inhaled, despite rosy depictions by the Laboratory’s public relations office. One speck of the material inhaled can cause cancer. According to one scientist, this particular isotope is about 56 times more deadly than “normal” plutonium.

So far, the Lab has downplayed the risk and kept the public largely in the dark about extent of the nuclear contamination. It is highly unusual to have an off-site radioactive contamination involving workers at Department of Energy facilities. The case of Karen Silkwood was the first such known or admitted incident.

One source says that the Lab has already spent $1 million on the clean up resulting from the contamination incident which took place on July 14. The contamination went undetected for 11 days. As a result, Lab workers unknowingly spread the contaminant multiple places, including locations in three additional states. It is unclear what measures the Lab is taking to discover what other public sites – grocery stores, gas stations, etc – may be contaminated.

The report raises concerns about the Lab’s continuing failure to follow environmental health and safety procedures. Last year, the Lab had 45 major nuclear safety violations. The Lab is already well on track to exceed that number this year.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is run by the University of California . The Project On Government Oversight urged the Department of Energy to start fining the University of California for health and safety violations in a November, 2004 letter which noted that nonprofits are not fined for violations as are for- profit contractors. According to the letter: “As a result, the University [of California] has avoided paying the millions of dollars in penalties leveled against it, no matter how dangerous the infractions. Without economic incentives to run a safe and secure facility, the University's record has been troubling.”

An initial occurrence report concerning the worker contamination incident was independently obtained by the Albuquerque Journal which reported on it Saturday.  

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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