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Robbers Swipe Plutonium, Cesium From a US Govt Rented SUV. And Yes, It's Still Missing
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Robbers Swipe Plutonium, Cesium From a US Govt Rented SUV. And Yes, It's Still Missing

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SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS – July 18, 2018

Unknown thieves stole plutonium and radioactive monitoring equipment from the backseat of a Ford Expedition which had been sitting in a Marriott parking lot in San Antonio, Texas, last year. More than a year later, and state and federal officials still don’t know where the plutonium – one of the most valuable and dangerous substances on earth – is. Nor has the cesium been recovered. The government has remained silent on the matter. This is the latest representation of extreme government incompetence in handling deadly radioactive materials.

And over a year later and after what appears to be a ham-handed investigation that was prematurely shut down, perhaps for fear of public embarrassment, authorities still have no clue as to the whereabouts of what the government admits are "bomb-usable materials".

An investigative report by the watchdog group, the Center for Public Integritydetails a March 2017 "sensitive mission" by two security experts from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory to transport dangerous nuclear materials from a nonprofit lab in San Antonio back to a high-security government facility in Idaho. 

This involved specialized equipment, which the report describes as "a plastic-covered disk of plutonium, a material that can be used to fuel nuclear weapons, and another of cesium, a highly radioactive isotope that could potentially be used in a so-called 'dirty' radioactive bomb."

This is how the original report describes the time of the theft:

But when they stopped at a Marriott hotel just off Highway 410, in a high-crime neighborhood filled with temp agencies and ranch homes, they left those sensors on the back seat of their rented Ford Expedition. When they awoke the next morning, the window had been smashed and the special valises holding these sensors and nuclear materials had vanished.

Of course none of these embarrassing details were publicized by Department of Energy officials or the FBI, but by government watchdog researchers with the Center for Public Integrity, who were able to piece together the events by obtaining local police reports which matched a blurb found in an internal Department of Energy memorandum.

As to this incident, the San Antonio police were dumbfounded that the experts from Idaho did not take more precautions. They "should have never left a sensitive instrument like this unattended in a vehicle," said Carlos Ortiz, spokesman for the San Antonio Police Department.

The lab security "experts" can hardly complain about a lack of resources to perform their tasks. According to the report:

The personnel from Idaho National Laboratory whose gear was stolen were part of the Off-Site Radioactive Source Recovery Program based at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, with an annual budget of about $17 million. Overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the program has scooped up more than 38,000 bits of radioactive material loaned to research centers, hospitals and academic institutions since 1999 — averaging 70 such missions a year. No state has returned more borrowed nuclear materials than Texas, where the recovery program has collected 8,566 items. 

No public announcement of the March 21st incident has been made by either the San Antonio police or by the FBI, which the police consulted by telephone. When asked by the investigating San Antonio police, officials at the lab and in San Antonio declined to say exactly how much plutonium and cesium were missing. But Idaho lab spokeswoman Sarah Neumann said the plutonium in particular wasn't enough to be fashioned into a nuclear bomb.

Ortiz said the department called an FBI liaison to a joint terrorism task force, but they expressed a vague interest in the case and have not ever bothered to show up at the scene of the crime. Instead they advised them to take as many fingerprints in the car as possible. But detectives found no useable prints, no worthwhile surveillance video of the crime, and no witnesses. A check of local pawn shops – to see if someone had tried to sell the sensors – turned up nothing.

One of the Idaho National Laboratory specialists told them, Ortiz said, "that it wasn't an important or dangerous amount" of plutonium. So they closed the investigation to avoid "chasing a ghost," Ortiz said.

But perhaps most shocking is that it doesn't appear there were any negative repercussions for the two security officials responsible for the loss:

Lab documents state that a month after the incident, one of the specialists charged with safeguarding the equipment in San Antonio was given a “Vision Award” by her colleagues. “Their achievements, and those of their colleagues at the laboratory, are the reasons our fellow citizens look to INL to resolve the nation’s big energy and security challenges,” Mark Peters, the lab director, said in an April 21, 2017, news release.

At the end of the fiscal year 2017, the Energy Department awarded the lab contractor that employed the guards assigned to pick up the nuclear material, Battelle Energy Alliance LLC, an "A" grade and described their overall performance as "excellent." The recognition resulted in an increase in bonuses, providing $15.5 million in profit and the extension of their government contract for another 5 years. 

The NRC, in contrast, has imposed six financial penalties on civilian institutions that lost or mishandled nuclear materials in the past year and a half alone (it has imposed and then waived penalties on another 20 institutions during this period). The largest penalty imposed was $22,500 against Qal-Tek Associates, a radiation detector manufacturer in Idaho Falls, for failing to "contain" radioactive materials during their transport, according to a published notice of the fine.

The most recent NRC fine was imposed this May against Idaho State University for its inability to find a quarter-sized piece of plutonium in a radiation meter that it had borrowed from Idaho National Laboratory in 1991. An Idaho State University employee conducting an inventory of such materials last October expected to find 14 of the Plutonium-239 pieces, each weighing less than four-hundredths of an ounce, but found just 13. The inspector reported this discrepancy to the university's radiation safety officer, who in turn reported it to the NRC.

The NRC imposed fines totaling $8,500 for the college's mishandling of the plutonium, and the years-long delay in reporting it missing. Idaho State University paid the fines June 6th, according to Cornelis Van der Schyf, the university's vice president for research and the dean of the graduate school. The missing plutonium's whereabouts remain unknown.

According to the U.S Department of Energy, the amount of weapons-grade plutonium needed to build a bomb is only 7 pounds.

Radioactive samples go missing more often than some might think. A 2009 Department of Energy report found that at least 1 pound of plutonium and 45 pounds of highly-enriched uranium had gone missing while they were on loan from U.S. military stockpiles.

In the last 20 years, there have been 270 instances of people trafficking or “maliciously” using nuclear material, according to a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

And who knows how many other incidents have occurred wherein plutonium, uranium, or other radioactive materials were "lost," "stolen" or "misplaced" that the public will never find out about? 

Author: USA Really