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Are 660 pounds of plutonium missing, misplaced or non-existent?  It appears Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is having inventory control problems again.  First it's supposed nuclear secrets passed to the Chinese which landed an innocent Wen Ho Lee in solitary confinement for nine months because, well, he was Chinese. After all who else would want to pass nuclear secrets to the Chinese but a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Taiwan?  Then there was the case of the missing computer disks with classified data. LANL director Pete Nanos ordered work stopped as employees are "retrained" in handling classified material and tantrumed about "cowboy" scientists.  The stoppage takes months and costs taxpayers multimillions of dollars.  Turns out the disks never existed.

So now it seems 660 pounds of plutonium are somehow unaccounted for.

Just for reference, the bomb that leveled Nagasaki contained about 12 pounds of plutonium. And just who discovered the plutonium  was missing? An environmental watchdog group, The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER)  toiling in a forensic accounting morass comparing public records data from the nation's weapons and disposal sites with a 1996 U.S. Department of Energy report detailing plutonium waste inventories.  With all the concern about terrorists creating the mythical dirty bombs it would seem that the government would be doing these comparisons.

In a story in the Albuquerque Journal North IEER president Arjun Makhijani, who co-authored a report on the findings noted
"We've got three sets of books with plutonium numbers in waste, and they are so far apart that they cannot be reconciled by any reasonable means,"

In a news conference in the  tiny New Mexico village of Pojoaque, near Los Alamos, Makhijani said, "There's no evidence the plutonium has been stolen or has left LANL, but it is the responsibility of the Department of Energy and (LANL manager) the University of California to guarantee that it has not gone off site."  

That doesn't exactly sound reassuring, particularly when the IEER report also noted, "It's possible that the unaccounted-for plutonium is buried in nuclear waste pits at LANL, which would have very significant environmental and health implications."

Predictably the  National Nuclear Security Administration representative John Ordaz, an NNSA assistant manager for environmental stewardship who attended the news conference, said the agency would analyze IEER's report and provide a response  but the analysis would take time. "We're doing everything to make sure the public is safe, and everything we do is formal and by the book and we have many, many assessments."

OK, so why weren't these "many, many assessments" done before the IEER called a press conference? So, is this "discovery" a grandstanding stunt by the IEER?  After all, Greg Mello, director of lab watchdog the Los Alamos Study Group, said he is "comfortable with the assumption" that the unaccounted-for plutonium is buried at LANL, is awaiting shipment to WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Project in southern New Mexico) or has already gone there.  "The root of the problem", he said, "is poor disposal records, especially related to early disposal areas, that prevent an accurate accounting of plutonium waste."

I feel so much more reassured that missing plutonium may already be entombed in a facility that the government assured nervous-Nellie environmentalists would only be for low-level radioactive waste.

Whether the plutonium is actually missing or just a figment of a bean-counter's imagination is a serious concern that merits more than a news conference in Pojoaque, New Mexico.  Without some kind of  legitimate accountability about really happened to the plutonium, speculation could run wild: Was it "misappropriated" to build a throw-down WMD somewhere in Iraq? (Hey look! We told you we'd find one!) Dirty bombs in sports stadiums?  Who really knows?

And it's not like the government is paying a paltry sum for this shoddy record keeping at LANL.  Besides the billions dumped into nuclear weapons program there's the money paid the scientists.  In a feat of mind-boggling irony, the same day IEER was holding its news conference in Pojoaque, the U.S. census released income figures for 2003 reporting tiny Los Alamos county--a veritable fly speck of a county in New Mexico which has counties the size of eastern states--has the highest per capita median income in the United States.  Even more  ironic is that New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the union, ranking 46th--even with wealthy Los Alamos County.  

A couple of weeks ago I wondered Who's Minding U.S. Weapons of Mass Destruction? Pantex Gaurd selling pilfered stuff on the Internet.   Now I'm wondering what else is missing.

Originally posted to Athena Sword on Thu Dec 01, 2005 at 09:46 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Over many years (none)
    Go to the IEER site and read the report.

    Yes, this is scary news, but it isn't like it's big chunks of weapons grade stuff, or vats of dust.

    It's waste (dirty gloves), lab equipment, etc.

    More on that later.

    Just realize that it's over a very long period of time and that terrorists aren't going to be able to extract enough Pu-239 from gloves or contaminated dirt to make a nuclear weapon.

    •  Transuranic Waste (none)
      TW is the term used to describe protective clothing, tools, and other items that have become contaminated through use.  The DOE has a disposal/storage facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico.  Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
      Still, even though this stuff is not a viable source for plutonium, you don't want this stuff just laying around.

      In prison, Tom Delay will no doubt be called 'the Hummer' by his fellow convicts.

      by soonergrunt on Thu Dec 01, 2005 at 10:02:00 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Heh, I'm from NM (none)
        I know all about WIPP.  BIG BIG controversy about it, regarding whether or not it's as safe/stable for waste storage as they claim.

        I'm not saying it's good to have transuranic waste unaccounted for (lying around).  Hell no.

        I just think we need to take this report with a grain of salt (no pun intended, nerdy stupid WIPP reference, </bad nerd joke>).

        I'm going to look through the report again.

        Ernest T. Bass is a waste remediation expert.  He's the one who would know absolutely whether the report is valid or not.

    •  Still.... (none)
      ....even if it isn't a WMD threat, it remains a significant health and environmental threat.

      Atoms for Peace.....electricity so cheap we won't have to meter it.

      Clean, safe, and secure.


    •  maybe so... (none)
      but it's more about some very highly paid people misplacing some important stuff.  If this little part of the system (lab waste contaminated with pu) is being "lost" it doesn't provide much reassurance about the big stuff we may never know about.
    •  No worries. (none)
      No big deal.  They 'only' probably dumped it in the arroys running east of the Pajarito Plateau where it'll migrate toward the Buckman Wells.  It'll show up in about 10 years - in Santa Fe's drinking water!!!1

      -9.0,-5.54 A real soldier died in his Hummer so you could play soldier in yours.

      by environmentalist on Thu Dec 01, 2005 at 10:31:47 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I had no idea Page was that heavy! (4.00)
    </running for cover>
  •  A Hotbed of Corruption (none)
    My father and I both worked as scientists at Los Alamos until we decided to get the hell out.  It's just too depressing to work at our WMD Capital.  We got to where we could not be associated LANL in any way.

    LANL is so screwed up it's almost impossible to believe, let alone describe.  It is truly one of the most corrupt spots in this hemisphere.  Everyone - from the highest "manager" to the lowliest technician is on the take.  The whole place seems to be nothing more than a nefarious scheme to squander billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars.  In the labs, tools and materials "sprout legs" and disappear faster than they can be acquired.

    The place is also incredibly inept and disorganized, in addition to being rotten and corrupt.  If a WMD went off and leveled Los Alamos, everyone would be better off in the long run.

    •  I was trying to be objective.... (none)
      but yeah to that too...except for the WMD... better for them to have to live in a trailer on the income of the majority of New Mexicans.
      •  Reality check... (none)
        A lot of people have left Los Alamos (and New Mexico) already, and most of them took higher-paying jobs than the ones they left in Los Alamos. Say what you will about the morality of the whole thing, but the immediate effect of any major shakedown in Los Alamos on the economy of northern NM is likely to be quite bad - and especially so for the lower-income people who cannot get a new high-paying high-tech job in 15 minutes.

        Now, were it up to me, I would leave only a minimal weapons program in Los Alamos (stewardship of existing stockpile, no new weapon design) but would start a new Manhattan project there, with the goal being energy independence.

    •  Where does all the new-legged stuff go? (none)
    •  Don't blame the scientists and techs! n/t (none)
    •  My stepdad, my stepsister, my (none)
      three nieces, the house I grew up in, the beautiful canyon behind that house...

      I'd sort of miss it if it were leveled.

      Patriotic American Liberal since 1962

      by mxwing on Thu Dec 01, 2005 at 11:15:24 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Don't worry...... (none)
    ...I have a feeling it will show up in Baghadad. Ahah!

    "What luck for rulers that men do not think." - Adolf Hitler

    by Bensdad on Thu Dec 01, 2005 at 12:06:19 PM PST

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