An unknown amount of weapons-grade plutonium, a critical ingredient in the manufacture of nuclear warheads, was stolen from the backseat of a car rented by a US Department of Energy employee—and more than a year later, we’re only finding out about it.
On March 21, 2017, two security experts from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory drove to San Antonio, Texas, to retrieve radioactive materials from a nonprofit research lab. The recovery mission was part of the National Nuclear Security Agency’s Off-Site Source Recovery Program, which hunts down small samples of fissile material that have been distributed to various public and private research facilities prior to the late 90s. It is harder to keep track of fissile material when it is distributed at hundreds of different sites, so the recovery program aims to reduce the risk of the material falling into the wrong hands by consolidating it at national laboratories.
Government and federal law enforcement agencies never publicly announced the San Antonio theft, which only came to light on Monday in an investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity.
The DoE employees brought radiation detectors, samples of plutonium, and cesium, a radioactive isotope produced by the nuclear fission of uranium and plutonium. Cesium isn’t used to manufacture nuclear weapons, but the Nuclear Threat Initiative calls it the “most dangerous of all radioactive isotopes” and claims it can be used in dirty bombs. The DoE researchers carried these radioactive samples to calibrate the radiation detectors.
When the DoE employees arrived in San Antonio, they stayed in a Marriott hotel “in a high-crime neighborhood filled with temp agencies and ranch homes,” according to the Center for Public Integrity report. Rather than taking the nuclear material and testing instruments into the hotel with them, the DoE employees decided to leave them on the backseat of their rental Ford Expedition overnight. When they woke the next morning, they found the car’s windows smashed and the fissile material missing.
More than a year later, the radioactive materials have not been recovered and no suspects in the theft have been identified.
The loss of radioactive samples is not uncommon. A report published last year by the International Atomic Energy Agency found that individuals had acquired nuclear material for “trafficking or malicious use” 270 times in the past two decades.
This is hardly surprising, given the relatively poor track records of the United States and Russia when it comes to keeping tabs on the whereabouts of its nuclear material. A 2009 audit of the US DoE found that over one-third of its facilities could “not accurately account for the quantities and locations of certain nuclear materials.” In fact, the DoE could not account for nearly 45 pounds of enriched uranium and 45 grams of plutonium.
When civilian nuclear material goes missing, such as the gram of plutonium lost by researchers at Idaho State University this year, the lost material is reported to the public by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The DoE, on the other hand, is tasked with overseeing military nuclear materials and tends not to report losses to the public.
Neither the San Antonio police nor Idaho National Laboratory would disclose the amount of missing plutonium and cesium to the Center for Public Integrity, but a spokesperson for the lab said it wasn’t enough plutonium to make a nuclear bomb, which requires about seven pounds of the fissile material. Just a few grams of radioactive material are enough to make a dirty bomb, which is why the US government made the recovery of radioactive samples a national security priority.
Even with the best security practices in place, there’s no accounting for the human factor when it comes to protecting radioactive materials from theft.