Analysis While staying at a Marriott hotel in San Antonio, Texas, US government staffers left nuclear material, recovered from a non-profit research lab, in a rented SUV overnight.
The following morning, these individuals – described as "security experts" at the US Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory – found their Ford Expedition had been broken into, and the radioactive material – plutonium and cesium used to calibrate radiation detectors – was gone.
A year and a half after the March 2017 theft, and the carcinogenic material – which could be used to create a dirty bomb if there was a sufficient amount of the stuff – is still missing.
The US government in fact has an acronym for this: MUF, which stands for "material unaccounted for."
Based on 2012 figures cited in a report into the blunder, produced by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), there's something like six tons of MUF in the wild. Most, we're assured, is believed to be trapped in nuclear processing machinery or the result of inaccurate record keeping.
The cockup was disclosed on Monday by the CPI in its aforementioned report, which pieced together details about the theft through a freedom of information act request based on a summary of the gaffe in an internal Department of Energy report.
Asked to comment, a spokesperson for US government's National Nuclear Security Administration, which is part of the Department of Energy, deferred to the DoE press office, which did not respond to The Register's inquiry. Idaho National Laboratory also did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for INL reportedly told the CPI that the missing plutonium isn't enough to create a full nuclear bomb.
The San Antonio Police Department provided The Register with a copy of the theft report, with the proviso that it is not for public distribution. The cops' report indicates that the FBI was notified and that several items were stolen. The items are specified in greater detail in the DoE report:
The equipment was stored in two locked, unmarked Pelican brand cases. One case contained two Ludlum 3030 alpha/beta sample counters, one plutonium 239 check source, and one cesium 137 check source. The second case contained two Ludlum Model 2224 scale rate meters, two Eberline R020-AA dose rate meters, one Ludlum Model 3 count rate meter, and one Thermo Scientific Micro Rem AOED dose rate meter.
In an email to The Register, Alan J. Kuperman, associate professor at LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, and coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, said the missing materials would not be enough for terrorists to create a proper nuclear bomb. The cesium can't be used – and it's highly likely not enough plutonium was taken to create a military-grade weapon.
To make a devastating plutonium bomb, like the one dropped on Nagasaki in Japan, you'd need roughly six kilograms of the material crafted into a sphere, as well as an awful lot of complex explosive lenses and wiring to uniformly and virtually instantly crush the filling to form a supercritical mass, as described in the famous Los Alamos Primer [PDF], the introductory notes given to physicists joining America's Manhattan Project.
Luckily, nowhere near that amount would have been in the stolen cases, we're assured.
"Cesium in any amount cannot be used to make a nuclear weapon," Kuperman said. "Plutonium requires several kilograms to make a nuclear weapon. Although the amount missing in this case is not reported, it is probably no more than a few grams, which would be a thousandth of the amount necessary for a bomb."
Both items, however, he said, could be used to build a dirty bomb, which is designed to disperse radioactive material for the purpose of mass contamination, rather than release a massive amount of energy from splitting atoms in a chain reaction. Cesium-137, he said, is quite radioactive. Plutonium, he said, is only somewhat radioactive, but could become a health threat if dispersed and inhaled.
This assumes the thieves know what they've stolen, how it can be used, and how to handle it. In the late 1980s, in Goiás, Brazil, a radioactive radiotherapy source was nicked from an abandoned hospital, and killed four people, and contaminated 249, after it was cracked open by thieves who didn't know what they were dealing with.
"In any case, I think we all can agree that government officials should not be leaving this stuff in hotel parking lots," Kuperman said. ®