Plutonium Missing from Los Alamos Lab

Contributing Writer, Daily Californian (Berkeley)
Friday, June 20, 2003

In yet another scuff to the reputation of UC-run Los Alamos National Laboratory, two plutonium vials cannot be located, lab officials announced Wednesday.

Officials believe the vials were probably discarded in waste drums held in a repository with 50 to 60 other drums, said lab spokesperson Kevin Roark.

But lab officials said the missing vials-each about the size of a human finger-did not pose a serious threat because the material was not weapons-grade plutonium.

"The material has scientific and analytical research value, but is in a low hazard and threat category," said Laboratory Director Pete Nanos. Lab employees discovered the vials were missing during an inventory check while transferring materials to another facility last week.

The vials, used for an experiment on long-term storage of nuclear materials, were not found by lab employees even though they were listed on an inventory.

Human error is to blame, lab officials said.

"We handle thousands and thousands of these little vials," Roark said. "You do the best kind of job you can and you are diligent as you can be, but people make mistakes. We're all human."

Last used in February 2002, lab officials are not sure when the plutonium became misplaced.

An investigation of the waste stream and a full materials inventory has yet to turn up the two vials.

The plutonium oxide was mixed with a variety of other elements, making it unusable for manufacturing weapons.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the contract for UC to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory, has not stepped in yet, awaiting results of the lab investigation, said administration spokesperson Bryan Wilkes.

UC has been forced to defend its longstanding contract to manage the lab after months of investigations revealing theft and millions of dollars in questionable expenses stained its management reputation.

The U.S. Department of Energy decided to open UC's once-exclusive contract to competitive bidding in 2005 when the contract expires.

Until then, if the UC Board of Regents allows the university to compete, it will have to prove competent leadership in both scientific research and business management.

The vial incident is also not the first time the lab has run into problems handling radioactive material.

Seven lab employees were exposed to radioactive material in March when a lab employee cut through a contaminated line.