'Plutonium Discrepancy' Cited

By: Adam Rankin, Journal Staff Writer
Albuquerque Journal
Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Anti-nuclear activists see the current work stand-down at Los Alamos National Laboratory as the perfect time for managers at the nuclear weapons facility to get their plutonium accounting into order.

Since at least 1996, Department of Energy officials have been concerned about a discrepancy in the way plutonium is tracked between two different databases used by both DOE and the lab. In fact, government records for LANL show the two methods differ by as much as 765 kilograms roughly 1,700 pounds.

The plutonium gap includes a mix of plutonium sources and is likely not all pure plutonium and not all weapons-grade, though it is impossible to determine based on the records.

The discrepancy at LANL is by far the largest at any of DOE's laboratories. The next closest is the Savannah River Complex in South Carolina, with a discrepancy of 391 kilograms.

"Los Alamos operations are in a work stand-down supposedly until all safety and security issues are resolved this fits right in," Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, said in a telephone interview.

"It is one thing to have the loss of nuclear design information, but it is another to have such a large amount of plutonium unaccounted for," he said.

Coghlan and Joni Arends, director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, joined Arjun Makhijani, president of the Maryland-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, in a letter urging LANL director Pete Nanos to resolve the discrepancy before resuming full operations.

Makhijani said LANL and DOE should be as serious about fixing their past plutonium accounting problems as they are about finding LANL's missing disks, if the disks are even missing.

"I am not saying that it (plutonium) is lost, it may be that there are completely innocent explanations... the likely explanation is it is in the waste, and we can't determine it," he said.

But LANL is "the lead lab in terms of security, and if they can't get their waste numbers right, who is going to do it?" Makhijani asked.

Nanos shut down all work at LANL on July 16 following the discovery that two Zip disks may have disappeared. He said work wouldn't resume until all employees follow safety and security procedures.

LANL spokesman Kevin Roark said: "We are satisfied with our accounting systems. We're following the rules when it comes to accounting for materials that go into the waste stream."

Calls to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for overseeing the security of the nation's nuclear materials, were not immediately returned.

Makhijani said LANL's failure to resolve the plutonium accounting discrepancy stems from the same arrogance that Nanos termed a behavioral problem and caused him to halt all work.

And he said a DOE task force formed to track down and resolve the discrepancy "essentially melted away" in the late 1990s, without resolving anything.

Makhijani asked what people would think if other nuclear countries had a plutonium discrepancy and said, "It is just in the waste, trust us."