We wish we could say this is from The Onion but it's a now viral story that's but the latest representation of extreme government incompetence in handling deadly radioactive materials. Two Department of Energy security officials tasked with transporting deadly substances left plutonium in the back of their Ford Expedition, where it was promptly stolen from a Marriott parking lot in San Antonio.
And over a year later and after what appears to be a ham-handed investigation that was prematurely shut down perhaps for fear of public embarrassment, authorities still have no clue as to the whereabouts of what the government admits are "bomb-usable materials".
An investigative report by the watchdog group, the Center for Public Integrity, details a March 2017 "sensitive mission" by two security experts from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory to transport dangerous nuclear materials from a nonprofit lab in San Antionio back to a high-secure government facility in Idaho.
This involved specialized equipment, which the report describes as "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."
The moment where the theft is recounted is worth viewing in the original report, given how unbelievable the scenario:
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.
Of course none of these embarrassing details were publicized by Department of Energy officials or the FBI, but by government watchdog researchers with the Center for Public Integrity, who were able to piece together the events based on obtaining local police reports which matched a blurb found in an internal Department of Energy memorandum.
San Antonio police, the only law enforcement group to be forthcoming about the details of the case, told the report's authors they were "dumbfounded" that the Idaho lab experts didn't take more precautions in safeguarding the deadly substances. They “should have never left a sensitive instrument like this unattended in a vehicle,” a spokesman for the San Antonio Police Department said.
The lab security "experts" presumably had an immense amount of taxpayer provided resources at their disposal to safeguard the substances, according to the report:
The personnel from Idaho National Laboratory whose gear was stolen were part of the Off-Site Radioactive Source Recovery Program based at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, with an annual budget of about $17 million. Overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the program has scooped up more than 38,000 bits of radioactive material loaned to research centers, hospitals and academic institutions since 1999 — averaging 70 such missions a year. No state has returned more borrowed nuclear materials than Texas, where the recovery program has collected 8,566 items.
But apparently they preferred the security of their rented Ford Expedition to safeguard the most valuable and dangerous substances on earth.
When the Idaho lab — one of the many locations across the US where government and military nuclear material is stockpiled — was questioned by investigating San Antonio police about how much plutonium and cesium went missing, a spokesperson responded that "it wasn’t an important or dangerous amount”. And further, no official connected with the incident has indicated just what quantities were actually stolen, but merely downplayed it, saying "there is little or no danger from these sources being in the public domain," according to the Idaho lab spokesperson.
And it appears that FBI joint terrorism taskforce investigators contacted by local detectives may not have ever bothered to show up at the scene of the crime, as San Antonio police spokesman "Ortiz said the department called an FBI liaison to a joint terrorism taskforce, who advised them to take as many fingerprints in the car as possible. But detectives found no useable prints, no worthwhile surveillance video of the crime, and no witnesses. A check of local pawn shops — to see if someone had tried to sell the sensors — turned up nothing."
The police spokesman further said they were told to close the investigation to avoid "chasing a ghost" as the Idaho National Laboratory deemed the missing quantities of material insignificant.
But perhaps most shocking (or not shocking at all, considering this is federal bureaucracy at work) is that it doesn't appear there were any negative repercussions for the two security officials responsible for the loss:
Lab documents state that a month after the incident, one of the specialists charged with safeguarding the equipment in San Antonio was given a “Vision Award” by her colleagues. “Their achievements, and those of their colleagues at the laboratory, are the reasons our fellow citizens look to INL to resolve the nation’s big energy and security challenges,” Mark Peters, the lab director, said in an April 21, 2017, news release.
The specific lab contractor that oversaw the botched San Antonio transfer, Battelle Energy Alliance LLC, was also given formal recognition by the Energy Department, which called their overall performance "excellent". The recognition resulted in increase in bonuses and the extension of their government contract for another 5 years.
Unsurprisingly, similar incidents involving missing radioactive material from government stockpiles or loss during transfer have been on the rise in recent years, though perhaps few as absurd as the San Antonio incident.
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 that had gone missing in the prior half-decade (since 2004) "were significant" and could be used by terrorists. The inspector general's report stated, “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 2009 report also harshly criticized the Energy Department for neglecting prior internal calls to correct poor accounting procedures which reportedly resulted in other loss incidents. The department still “may be unable to detect lost or stolen material” the inspector general said in its report — something now 100% confirmed in the San Antonio incident.
And who knows how many other incidents have occurred wherein plutonium, uranium, or other radioactive materials were "lost" or "stolen" or "misplaced" that the public will never find out about?