Sun, May 06, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Idaho university misplaces weapons-grade plutonium

AP, BOISE, Idaho

A small amount of radioactive, weapons-grade plutonium about the size of a US quarter is missing from an Idaho university that was using it for research, leading federal officials on Friday to propose a US$8,500 fine.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said Idaho State University cannot account for about 1 gram of the material that is used in nuclear reactors and to make nuclear bombs.

The amount is too small to make a nuclear bomb, but could be used to make a dirty bomb to spread radioactive contamination, agency spokesman Victor Dricks said.

“The NRC has very rigorous controls for the use and storage of radioactive materials as evidenced by this enforcement action,” he said of the proposed fine for failing to keep track of the material.

Cornelis van der Schyf, vice president for research at the university, blamed partially completed paperwork from 15 years ago as the school tried to dispose of the plutonium.

“Unfortunately, because there was a lack of sufficient historical records to demonstrate the disposal pathway employed in 2003, the source in question had to be listed as missing,” he said in a statement. “The radioactive source in question poses no direct health issue or risk to public safety.”

Idaho State University has a nuclear engineering program and works with the US Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, considered the nation’s primary nuclear research lab and located 105km from the school.

The plutonium was being used to develop ways to ensure nuclear waste containers were not leaking and to find ways to detect radioactive material being illegally brought into the US following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the school said in an e-mail.

The university, which has 30 days to dispute the proposed fine, reported the plutonium missing on Oct. 13 last year, documents released by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission showed. The agency said a school employee doing a routine inventory discovered the university could only account for 13 of its 14 plutonium sources, each weighing about the same.

The school searched documents and found records from 2003 and 2004 saying that the material was on campus and awaiting disposal. However, there were no documents saying the plutonium had been properly disposed of.

The last document mentioning the plutonium is dated Nov. 23, 2003. It said the Idaho National Laboratory did not want the plutonium and the school’s technical safety office had it “pending disposal of the next waste shipment.”

The school also reviewed documents on waste barrels there and others transferred off campus since 2003, and opened and examined some of them. Finally, officials searched the campus, but did not find the plutonium.

The nuclear commission said senior university officials planned to return the school’s remaining plutonium to the Energy Department. It is not clear if that has happened.

Energy Department officials did not return calls for comment on Friday.

Returning the plutonium was part of the school’s plan to reduce its inventory of radioactive material, Dricks said.

He said overall it has “a good record with the NRC.”

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