San Francisco Chronicle
December 1, 2005

Plutonium could be missing from lab

600-plus pounds unaccounted for, activist group says

By Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer

Enough plutonium to make dozens of nuclear bombs hasn't been accounted
for at the UC-run Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and may
be missing, an activist group says in a new report.

There is no evidence that the weapons-grade plutonium has been stolen
or diverted for illegal purposes, the Institute for Energy and
Environmental Research said. However, the amount of unaccounted-for
plutonium -- more than 600 pounds, and possibly several times that --
is so great that it raises "a vast security issue," the group said in
a report to be made public today.

The institute, which is based in Takoma Park, Md., says it compared
data from five publicly available reports and documents issued by the
U.S. Energy Department and Los Alamos from 1996 to 2004 and found
inconsistencies in them. It says the records aren't clear on what the
lab did with the plutonium, a byproduct of nuclear bomb research at
Los Alamos.

A spokesman for UC, which manages the national laboratories at Los
Alamos and Livermore for the Energy Department, did not address the
report's specifics but said the New Mexico lab tracks nuclear material
"to a minute quantity."

The report says there are several possible explanations for what
happened to the plutonium. They include:

-- It was discarded in unsafe amounts in landfills at the Los Alamos
lab. It is legal to discard weapons-grade plutonium in landfills, one
of which is 40 feet deep, as long as the substance is sufficiently
diluted. However, if a landfill holds too much plutonium, the material
can eventually contaminate the environment -- for example by leeching
into groundwater or being absorbed by the roots of plants -- study co-
author Arjun Makhijani said in an interview.

-- It was shipped to an Energy Department burial site in a New Mexico
salt mine, without accurate records of such shipments being kept.

-- It was stolen or otherwise shipped off site for unknown reasons.

"If it has left the site, then it obviously has the most grievous
security implications," Makhijani said. "I cannot say that it has left
the site, but the government has the responsibility to ensure that it
has not.

"And the University (of California) obviously has a responsibility in
this. It should be a grave embarrassment for the university to be
sitting on numbers like this and discrepancies like this, and not have
resolved them."

UC spokesman Chris Harrington said Los Alamos "does an annual
inventory of special nuclear materials which is overseen by (the
Energy Department). These inventories have been occurring for 20-plus
years. Special nuclear materials are carefully tracked to a minute

The report concludes that at least 661 pounds of plutonium generated
at the lab over the last half-century is not accounted for. The atomic
bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 contained about 13
pounds of plutonium.

"The security implications... are extremely serious, since less
than 2 percent of the lowest unaccounted-for plutonium is enough to
make one nuclear bomb," the report said.

The problem of plutonium accounting began worrying lab critics in the
mid-1990s, when Energy Department officials released lab records as
part of the Clinton administration's openness initiative.

Critics found they had trouble determining exactly what the lab was
doing with the plutonium waste that is generated during the
manufacture of spherical plutonium "pits," the fissile triggers of
nuclear bombs.

Makhijani said he and colleagues from two other activist groups hoped
the problem would be resolved in August 2004, when they sent a letter
of complaint to then-Los Alamos Director G. Peter Nanos. Nanos was
trying to reform lab operations after highly publicized scandals over
UC management of Los Alamos.

Nanos and lab officials did not respond, though, and nine months later
Nanos left for a different job. Makhijani said he and associates had
decided to make their report public to dramatize federal officials'
failure to resolve the puzzle of the missing plutonium.

Makhijani received his engineering doctorate at UC Berkeley with
specialization in plasma physics and nuclear fusion. The institute is
funded by sources including the Ford Foundation and San Francisco's
Ploughshares Fund.

UC has joined Bechtel National and other industrial partners in a bid
to retain its contract to run Los Alamos, in a competition against a
consortium consisting of Lockheed-Martin, the University of Texas,
several New Mexico universities and various industrial partners.

Makhijani says he isn't taking sides in the competition but that he
would prefer the weapons labs be run by industrial contractors rather
than universities. The reason, he said, is that university connections
to the weapons labs tend to lead to restraints on free inquiry and
speech within the universities.

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