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Los Alamos lab improperly sent ‘special’ nuke material by air via Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE, N.M. — In a week where nuclear safety issues at Los  Alamos National Laboratory were already under scrutiny, federal officials announced today that the lab had shipped nuclear material across the country using commercial air cargo services, in violation of regulations.

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The material was shipped out last week. The head of the NNSA said sending the material by air instead of using a ground cargo service was “unacceptable.”

A major difference between air and ground transportation is that there can be rapid pressure changes during a flight.

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Mello said in an interview that “special nuclear material” refers to material “unique to the nuclear weapons world,” such as radioactive plutonium and highly enriched uranium. The term has been used as far back as the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. “Basically isotopes used in nuclear explosives,” Mello said.

NNSA said in a news release that the shipments “should have been made using commercial ground cargo services, and were packaged and containerized for this mode of transportation.”

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Lab contractor LANS was most notably penalized after a drum of radioactive waste improperly packed with a combustible mix at Los Alamos in 2014 leaked and shut down the nation’s nuclear waste storage facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant at Carlsbad.

The new incident is reminiscent of a mistake from November 1994, when a California Army depot sent less than a pound of plutonium to Los Alamos by air using FedEx. And in 2005, contamination from radioactive americium from a LANL researcher was spread through a FedEx package sent to a U.S. Naval nuclear power research lab in Pennsylvania.

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