Losses of civilian nuclear material are usually disclosed but when the government loses nuclear bomb ingredients it stays mum
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.
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.
No public announcement of the March 21 incident has been made by either the San Antonio police or by the FBI, which the police consulted by telephone. When asked, officials at the lab and in San Antonio declined to say exactly how much plutonium and cesium were missing. But 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.
Unlike civilian stocks, which are closely monitored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and openly regulated – with reports of thefts or disappearances sent to an international agency in Vienna — the handling of military stocks tended by the Department of Energy is much less transparent.
The Energy Department, which declined comment for this story, doesn’t talk about instances of lost and stolen nuclear material produced for the military. It also has been less willing than the commission to punish its contractors when they lose track of such material, several incidents suggest.
That nontransparent approach doesn’t match the government’s rhetoric.
Protecting bomb-usable materials, like the plutonium that went missing in San Antonio, “is an overriding national priority,” President Obama’s press office said in a fact sheet distributed during the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit that he hosted in late March 2016, a Washington event attended by more than 50 heads of state.
The administration boasted in the declaration that America’s security standards for military-grade materials “meet or exceed the recommendations for civilian nuclear materials” made by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. It also touted the strength of its tracking of such materials, which it said would “ensure timely detection and investigation of anomalies, and deter insider theft/diversion.”
The United States also boasted about its transparency, explaining that it “has published studies and reviews of nuclear security incidents, including lessons learned and corrective actions taken.”
President Donald Trump, speaking to a military audience at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 21, 2017, parroted the Obama administration’s refrain that “we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.”
The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, released in February, similarly emphasized the threat posed by nuclear terrorism, and asserted that “preventing the illicit acquisition of a nuclear weapon, nuclear materials, or related technology and expertise by a violent extremist organization is a significant U.S. national security priority.”
But America’s record of safeguarding such materials isn’t sterling. Gaps between the amount of plutonium that nuclear weapons companies have produced and the amount that the government can actually locate occur frequently enough for officials to have created an acronym for it – MUF, meaning “material unaccounted for.”
Just a cat or a brick
The gaps have shown up at multiple nodes in the production and deployment cycle for nuclear arms: at factories where plutonium and highly-enriched uranium have been made, at storage sites where the materials are held in reserve, at research centers where the materials are loaned for study, at waste sites where they are disposed, and during transit between many of these facilities.
Production of the bomb materials was so frantic during the Cold War that a total of roughly six tons of the material – enough to fuel hundreds of nuclear explosives – has been declared as MUF by the government, with most of it presumed to have been trapped in factory pipes, filters, and machines, or improperly logged in paperwork. (That figure, which dates from 2012, has not been publicly updated.)
For nearly 40 years, “DOE officials and their predecessors … did not have an effective capability within their accounting systems to know if significant quantities of” bomb-grade uranium were being diverted to illicit use, according to Charles Ferguson, a physicist who is now director of the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board at the National Academies of Sciences.
The Government Accountability Office declared in Sept. 2015 that the department also had never conducted an authoritative inventory of the location and quantity of plutonium loaned by the United States to other nations, and that eleven foreign sites with U.S.-made bomb-grade uranium had not been visited by U.S. inspectors in the previous 20 years. Many sites inspected before 2010 lacked rigorous security systems, the GAO warned.
Asked for comment, National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman Greg Wolfe said in an email on June 29 that his agency is still working with DOE on that inventory, three years later. He did not say when it would be finished.
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.
“Considering the potential health risks associated with these materials and the potential for misuse should they fall into the wrong hands, the quantities written off were significant,” the inspector general’s report stated. It also harshly criticized the Energy Department for failing to correct dozens of poor accounting and monitoring practices flagged in a probe of the problem eight years earlier.
The Energy Department, the inspector general said in its report, still “may be unable to detect lost or stolen material.” No independent probe of the department’s capabilities has been conducted since then. When asked whether the GAO conclusions were still valid, a spokesman for the department did not respond.
Russians know even less about their own missing bomb materials
The United States is not alone in its uncertainty about the location of bomb-usable materials. U.S. officials who have studied Russia’s production practices say its accounting system has many of the shortcomings that America’s had, if not more, partly because the Russian factory logbooks were routinely jiggered to match official state production quotas.
Russia hasn’t tried to look more deeply into these records to assess the actual quantities of material it produced and can locate now, and thus the size of its own MUF. More than a decade ago, according to U.S. experts, some of its top physicists turned aside efforts by specialists in the United States to collaborate on a study of it. The U.S. National Intelligence Council has repeatedly said that Russian accounting was so poor that undetected smuggling likely occurred.
The details of how or why U.S. nuclear materials go missing from military stocks – or the quantity of such materials involved in individual incidents — are not disclosed by the government. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission annually publishes a tally of lost, missing or stolen radioactive material from civilian nuclear stocks (those typically used for oil and gas exploration, medical purposes, academic research and nuclear power).
In a Jan. 2018 report, for example, the NRC stated during the previous year, eight such items had gone missing and two had not been recovered. None were of the type or quantity useable in a nuclear weapon. Whenever additional material goes missing, the NRC discloses it publicly.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit Washington group that wants to tighten the security of nuclear materials around the globe, noted in a 2015 report that the civilian stocks subject to the most transparent and uniform monitoring amount to just 17 percent of all those held by governments. “The absence of any international standards” for securing and monitoring the remaining 83 percent in military hands is dangerous, the group said.
Concern that nuclear materials are being sought around the world to deliberately cause harm is real, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. In a 2017 report, the international agency identified 270 times between 1993 and 2016 when individuals acquired nuclear materials “for trafficking or malicious use.” Twelve involved highly-enriched uranium, and two targeted plutonium. Some of these cases were “more organized, better resourced and … involved perpetrators with a track record in trafficking nuclear/radioactive material,” the report said.