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Plutonium accounting falls short, DOE finds

LANL fails to meet goal of 99% accurate storage records

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

When it comes to plutonium accounting, 98.34 percent accuracy is not good enough.

In a recent random inspection by the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General, Los Alamos National Laboratory fell short of the 99 percent accuracy rate in accounting for the lab’s inventory of weapons-grade nuclear materials, including plutonium used in the hearts of nuclear weapons.

Failure to meet the exacting standard was one of a number of issues called out by the inspection team, which concluded that the lab, six years after similar problems were documented, “continued to experience problems with the accountability of certain nuclear materials.”

Because of the attractiveness of plutonium and other weapons-usable nuclear material to terrorists and nations seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, U.S. accounting standards for the materials are strict.

To test the lab’s performance, inspectors picked an inventory list of 1,564 items, which represented a subset of the lab’s nuclear materials in storage. Of that list, inventory listings for 1,538 matched the actual location and contents of the nuclear material storage containers, with 26 errors.

That was too many errors, according to inspectors, whose report was made public Tuesday. They also found cases where items were combined in a single container without updating records to reflect the change. And they found cases where felt-tip pens had been used to mark nuclear material containers, “causing difficulty in reading the item identification number.”

The problems, the inspectors found, were the result of lab managers who “did not always provide effective oversight to ensure the control and accountability of nuclear materials.”

A lab spokesman did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment about the report. But in written responses, lab management generally agreed with the findings, including a pledge to increase the number of routine inventories as needed. The National Nuclear Security Administration also agreed to review its policy on the use of felt-tip pens to mark nuclear material containers.

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