Federal officials are investigating the theft of radioactive materials from an area at Los Alamos National Laboratory set aside for contaminated waste – among them a bandsaw that registered 500 times the allowable limit of contamination.
Individuals who take property from the lab typically move it to their homes, garages or outbuildings, according to a federal court filing. In 2015, there have been 76 thefts of lab property by LANL personnel, according to the document. The Los Alamos Police Department has looked into 13 reported thefts from various lab areas, including the contaminated storage yard.
The individual suspected of removing the items has not been criminally charged, according to a record check. A spokesman for LANL referred questions to the FBI, which did not respond to a request for comment.
The materials were removed from Technical Area 54, a waste management facility within the boundaries of the laboratory where contaminated materials are held until they can be shipped elsewhere. Another designated property, Area G, is used to cut up large pieces of contaminated materials, during which the tools used become contaminated and cannot be removed from that area, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque.
Signs at both locations warn of radiation danger and notify visitors that it is a controlled area that requires certain procedures to be followed when leaving.
The affidavit was prepared by a special agent with the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General in Albuquerque, which conducts criminal investigations involving fraud, waste and abuse by DOE contractors and subcontractors.
According to the search warrant, the lab’s Investigative Services Team contacted the OIG on Sept. 30 to report that a subcontractor’s employee had removed items. The employee, who had “unfettered access” to both the technical area and Area G, was responsible for conducting hourly inspections of waste drums to ensure internal temperatures were maintained. The worker had been training in hazardous waste operations, tritium safety, radiation worker and waste disposition critical safety fundamentals, and received site-specific training.
The Los Alamos Police Department had responded to a larceny call the previous day at another technical area, TA-18, where a witness had seen a man throwing items from the trunk of his car into bushes along the roadside. Los Alamos police found a bandsaw, garden hose, Truefit gloves, screwdriver set and conduit, some of them marked “TA-54.”
The Los Alamos officer immediately notified radioactive control technicians to survey for contamination. Both the individuals and items found were positive for alpha-emitting isotopes, and two individuals at the spot where the items were discovered were taken to the lab’s occupational health clinic for decontamination.
One individual who was interviewed said some contaminated gloves left in a LANL vehicle the week before had gone missing.
Police obtained a state search warrant for a vehicle and, on Oct. 7, the lab’s radiological assistance program surveyed the vehicle’s interior and exterior. The survey found contamination on the steering wheel, gear shift and passenger door that registered 600 to 1,000 DPMs, or disintegrations per minute, a measurement of the amount of energy emitted from a contaminated area. The DOE release limit standard is 20 DPM, according to the affidavit.
The bandsaw registered even higher – approximately 100,000 DPM, it says.
The bandsaw contamination “may pose a serious health risk,” the affidavit says. Agents obtained permission from U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Yarbrough to search the Española area home of the subcontractor employee believed to have taken them, but no items were removed from the employee’s home.