Losing plutonium

Plutonium is a major component of nuclear weapons. You would think that the US government would be very careful about monitoring the supply. According to this report from the Center for Public Integrity, you would be wrong.

Two security experts from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory drove to San Antonio, Texas, in March 2017 with a sensitive mission: to retrieve dangerous nuclear materials from a nonprofit research lab there.

Their task, according to documents and interviews, was to ensure that the radioactive materials did not fall into the wrong hands on the way back to Idaho, where the government maintains a stockpile of nuclear explosive materials for the military and others.

To ensure they got the right items, the specialists from Idaho brought radiation detectors and small samples of dangerous materials to calibrate them: specifically, 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.

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.

Surely everyone must know that you should never leave anything exposed inside a parked car. That is a basic precaution. I know several people who have had their cars broken into by thieves who stole backpacks, duffel bags, and the like that were visible on the back seat. You at least put them out of sight in the trunk. And even in that case, I make sure that I put the stuff in the trunk before driving off, never when I arrive at my destination, because I know people who have had their trunks broken into because thieves have observed them putting stuff in it before walking way. If I know to take these basic precautions, how can people tasked with safeguarding valuable material not know?

It turns out that quite a lot of plutonium is unaccounted for.

More than a year later, state and federal officials don’t know where the plutonium – one of the most valuable and dangerous substances on earth – is. Nor has the cesium been recovered.

Idaho lab spokeswoman Sarah Neumann said the plutonium in particular wasn’t enough to be fashioned into a nuclear bomb.

It is nonetheless now part of a much larger amount of plutonium that over the years has gone quietly missing from stockpiles owned by the U.S. military, often without any public notice.

This is not reassuring. Where is the plutonium going? And why? Even if it is not falling into the hands of people who seek to make bombs, highly radioactive elements can be a source of lethal danger to those in its proximity. The people who stole the plutonium from the parked car may have been just common thieves who thought the bags contained things like computers and other easily sellable items. What they would have done with this material is anyone’s guess.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Two security experts … left those sensors on the back seat of their rented Ford Expedition.

    With “expertise” like that protecting our weapons systems, we might as well have a total doofus in charge of the nuclear arsenal and a tool of some unfriendly foreign power controlling our national defenses. Oh, wait…

  2. says

    Presumably the stuff is clean, not dusty, and well-packaged. But the thieves could die a pretty horrible death if they handle it wrong. Plutonium is not good stuff to fuck with.

    “Not enough to make a bomb” geeze no but you could make a major urban area’s water supply worse than Flint, Michigan, if one of the thieves was willing to sacrifice their life by grinding it into powder.

    This is worth remembering when you hear the US’ self-congratulatory accounts of helping track down old Soviet radioactives. It looks like no government is competent to handle this stuff safely.

  3. alanuk says

    A horror story worthy of the Daily Mail (a UK joke but never, ever, quote it as a source). I think the more sane comments under the original Center for Public Integrity effectively explain why this is a non-story; until the politician got involved of course.
    The first horror is the picture of a Marriott hotel; the thing that sticks out, apart from the fact that Marriott hotels are not uncommon, is the high voltage wires with trees growing under them and other utilities strung up on the same poles.
    All these two clowns have done, apart from losing some expensive equipment, is to lose the accompanying calibration sources; they were not bringing back the ‘dangerous nuclear materials’. Presumable the plan was not to throw said material onto the back seat and drive back with it.
    Suppose the thieves had stolen the car? They could have done real damage with that. I am reminded of Charlton Heston when he had is rifle stolen in similar circumstances (but they did not even have to break a window for that).

  4. raym says

    Mano asks: “Where is the plutonium going?”
    Simple! Being radioactive, it decays. Q.E.D.
    (/s, in case anyone wondered)

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