A new report reveals that in March 2017, two security experts from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory entrusted with transporting sensitive nuclear materials from San Antonio, Texas back to Idaho, stopped at a hotel and left the materials in the car while they grabbed some sleep.
The materials were stolen.
Those materials, including radiation detectors as well as a plastic-covered disk of plutonium, which can fuel nuclear weapons, and another disk of cesium, a highly radioactive isotope that could be part of a “dirty” radioactive bomb, were brought from Idaho to San Antonio in order to calibrate the nuclear materials the agents were bringing back to Idaho.
The Marriott hotel just off Highway 410 where the agents left their Ford Expedition, was in a high-crime neighborhood; according to San Antonio police statistics, there were 87 thefts at the Marriott hotel or its parking lot in 2016 and 2017. When the agents returned to the vehicle the next morning, one window had been shattered and the valises holding these sensors and nuclear materials were no longer there.
The materials are still missing.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, as reported on mysanantonio.com, Carlos Ortiz, spokesman for the San Antonio Police Department, said the agents “should have never left a sensitive instrument like this unattended in a vehicle.”
The government refers to nuclear materials that have gone missing as MUF: “material unaccounted for.” As Patrick Malone and R. Jeffrey Smith of the Center for Public Integrity write:
Regarding transfers to academic researchers, government agencies, or commercial firms within the United States, the Energy Department’s inspector general concluded in 2009 –the most recent public accounting – that at least a pound of plutonium and 45 pounds of highly-enriched uranium loaned from military stocks had been officially listed until 2004 as securely stored, when in fact it was missing.
As little as nine pounds of highly-enriched uranium (the weight of an average cat) or 7 pounds of plutonium (the weight of a brick) can produce a functioning nuclear warhead, according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. So the missing amount in this category alone — the MUF stemming from loans to researchers from military stocks — is still enough to produce at least five nuclear bombs comparable to those that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, experts say. Plutonium in any quantity is also highly carcinogenic.
In early May, it was reported that a small amount of radioactive, weapons-grade plutonium was missing from an Idaho university. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the material weighed roughly 1/30th of an ounce. Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the agency, said the small amount could be utilized to make a “dirty bomb.”