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Los Alamos lab improperly sent ‘special’ nuke material by air

SANTA FE, N.M. — In a week where nuclear safety issues at Los  Alamos National Laboratory were already under scrutiny, federal officials announced today that the lab had shipped nuclear material across the country using commercial air cargo services, in violation of regulations.

The National Nuclear Safety Administration announced that LANL had disclosed “that proper procedures were not followed in shipping small quantities of special nuclear material” to both Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in California, and the Savannah River National Laboratory, in South Carolina.

The material was shipped out last week. The head of the NNSA said sending the material by air instead of using a ground cargo service was “unacceptable.”

A major difference between air and ground transportation is that there can be rapid pressure changes during a flight.

“It’s like a ball point pen in your pocket – in an airplane there could be a loss of containment,” said Greg Mello of the Albuquerque-based Los Alamos Study Group advocacy and research organization.

Mello said in an interview that “special nuclear material” refers to material “unique to the nuclear weapons world,” such as radioactive plutonium and highly enriched uranium. The term has been used as far back as the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. “Basically isotopes used in nuclear explosives,” Mello said.

NNSA said in a news release that the shipments “should have been made using commercial ground cargo services, and were packaged and containerized for this mode of transportation.”

“However, the actual shipment documents were instead prepared for transport via commercial air cargo services, a mode of transportation not authorized by Federal regulations.

An NNSA spokesman, in a phone interview, would not say more about what the material was. He did say the aircraft that the material was shipped on did not include passenger planes.

“This failure to follow established procedures is absolutely unacceptable,” said NNSA Administrator Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz.

LANL is run by Los Alamos National Security LLC (LANS), a private consortium that includes Bechtel and the University of California. After a series of unsatisfactory performance reviews, the federal government has decided against extending LANS $2 billion-plus annual operating contract and will rebid the contract over the next year or so.

“I require the contractors who manage and operate our national laboratories and production plants to rigorously adhere to the highest safety and security standards in performing the vitally important work they do for our national security,” Klotz said Friday.

NNSA said an investigation is being conducted to determine the cause of the shipping mistakes, “as well as procedures to avoid future incidents of this type,” and that the agency “will use the full terms and conditions of the contract to ensure that any responsible parties are held accountable.”

Recent criticism

Just on Monday, Klotz had defended how his agency has held LANL accountable on safety and operations issues, noting that NNSA had withheld $82 million in performance fees between 2013 and 2016. Klotz’s Monday statement also said LANL’s safety culture had been attacked “without offering all of the facts and the full context.”

He was responding to a series of news articles published this week by the Center for Public Integrity that cited internal reports and other documents outlining federal regulators’ concerns about safety lapses at LANL over the years, including spilled plutonium and workers positioning plutonium rods in a way that could have led to an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.

The criticism emerged as work ramps up at Los Alamos to produce plutonium “pits,” a key component for the nation’s nuclear weapons cache and part of hugely expensive effort to refurbish and modernize the arsenal over the next decade and longer.

In an internal memo obtained by The Associated Press, LANL officials reassured employees of the safety of the lab’s facility for making pits. “As employees, you should be proud of your laboratory’s accomplishments over the past decade to strengthen our ability to operate safely and securely,” according to the memo, dated Monday. “While there will often be external organizations and individuals which advance a misleading narrative, it is not an accurate reflection of our work.”

Lab contractor LANS was most notably penalized after a drum of radioactive waste improperly packed with a combustible mix at Los Alamos in 2014 leaked and shut down the nation’s nuclear waste storage facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad.

The new incident is reminiscent of a mistake from November 1994, when a California Army depot sent less than a pound of plutonium to Los Alamos by air using FedEx. And in 2005, contamination from radioactive americium from a LANL researcher was spread through a FedEx package sent to a U.S. Naval nuclear power research lab in Pennsylvania.

“It’s important to say that shipping small quantities of radioactive material with safe packaging is not necessarily dangerous,” the Los Alamos Study Group’s Mello told the Journal Friday. “It happens all the time. And the question is that it has to be properly packed and managed and the appropriate safeguards followed.”