Plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives, and highly toxic chemicals have been improperly packaged or shipped by nuclear weapons contractors at least 25 times in the past five years, according to government documents.
The risks were discovered after regulators conducted inspections during transit, when the packages were opened at their destinations, during scientific analysis after the items were removed from packaging, or — in the worst cases — after releases of radioactive contaminants by unwary recipients, the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation showed.
Only a few, slight penalties appear to have been imposed for these mistakes.
In the most recent such instance, Los Alamos National Laboratory, or LANL — a privately-run, government-owned nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico — 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.
Before shipping the plutonium, Los Alamos failed to properly complete a checklist of dangerous goods that FedEx requires customers to fill out, according to the Energy Department.
It used air transport on the grounds that one of the other labs — located in Livermore, California — needed the plutonium urgently, according to the initial explanation that Los Alamos filed with the government on June 23.
But that claim of urgency was false, the recipient told the Center for Public Integrity. “There was no urgency in receiving this shipment — this notion is incorrect,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory spokeswoman Lynda Seaver said in an email message on July 13.
In total, 11 of the 25 known shipping mistakes since July 2012 involved shipments that either originated at Los Alamos or passed through the lab. Thirteen of the 25 incidents involved plutonium, highly-enriched uranium (another nuclear explosive), or other radioactive materials. Some of the mislabeled shipments went to toxic waste dumps and breached regulatory limits on what the dumps were allowed to accept, according to the reports.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which arguably has more experience with the handling and transport of radioactive materials than any other government entity, has no jurisdiction over nuclear weapons-related work by the NNSA or its contractors. Instead, the Energy Department (of which the NNSA is a semi-autonomous part) regulates all the sites on its own, as well as the contractors that manage them.
Internal NNSA records indicate that in the 25 incidents since July 2012, contractors drew just three fines, for example. DOT fined the Energy Department’s Savannah River site $17,650 in 2016 for incomplete hazardous material descriptions and insufficient security training of personnel. The New Mexico Environment Department imposed an $80,100 fine against Los Alamos last year for an array of hazardous waste violations, including several shipments with unlabeled containers of hazardous waste and incomplete waste descriptions. Utah environmental regulators also fined Los Alamos $1,500 in 2015, when bolts holding hazardous waste containers shut came loose during a shipment to a dump in that state.
But in more than 20 instances, the contractors were not directly fined by regulators in enforcement actions stemming from the shipping errors, according to government reports.