At least 25 times in the past five years, nuclear weapons contractors have improperly packaged or shipped plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives and highly toxic chemicals, according to government documents.
In the most recent instance, Los Alamos National Laboratory, a privately run, government-owned nuclear weapons lab about 50 miles northeast of Albuquerque, admitted five weeks ago that in June it had improperly shipped unstable, radioactive plutonium in three containers to two other government-owned labs via FedEx cargo planes instead of complying with federal regulations that required using trucks to limit the risk of an accident.
The documents show that Los Alamos in particular has been a repeat offender in mislabeling its shipments of hazardous materials: For example, in a previously undisclosed 2012 case, it sent unlabeled plutonium — a highly carcinogenic, unstable metal — to a University of New Mexico laboratory where graduate students sometimes work, according to internal government reports.
The plutonium was accidentally opened there, leading to a contamination of the lab that the university to clean it and Los Alamos to dispose of the debris.
When the waste was shipped out, the university’s chief radiation safety officer at the time told members of the campus safety staff in an email that the disposal was “very difficult … due to the high radio-toxicity of the radionuclide.”
In the past three months alone, nuclear weapons contractors have made at least three shipping errors besides the errant FedEx plutonium shipments, according to Energy Department records.
• In June, the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas, accidentally shipped an unsafe quantity of high explosives to an unspecified off-site laboratory.
• In May, the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tenn., shipped unlabeled radioactive materials to an unspecified destination.
• Also in May, Los Alamos sent inaccurately labeled highly acidic waste to a Colorado chemical disposal site, according to New Mexico Environment Department records.
In December, shipping personnel at Savannah River sent a container of tritium gas, which is used to boost the potency of a nuclear detonation, to the wrong place. It was supposed to be shipped to Lawrence Livermore but instead was delivered to Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.
In September 2014, the contractors that operate the Nevada National Security Site inadvertently sent unlabeled radioactive material to their own satellite office at Livermore, which lacked a radiation control expert trained to deal with such a surprise, according to an internal Energy Department report.
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