One year ago, then-vice presidential nominee Joseph Biden predicted the Obama administration would face an international crisis “generated” specifically to test the new president’s mettle.
That time has come. Iran disclosed this month the location of a new nuclear facility it had begun constructing in secret. On Oct. 25, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will get their first tour of the facility.
The purpose of such an inspection isn’t just to make sure Iran isn’t developing nuclear weapons, but to ensure the Islamic republic is taking the proper precautions—because even nuclear superpowers like the US still have containment problems.
Over the last two months, domestic nuclear inspectors have issued several reports regarding radiological incidents and administrative shortcomings in New Mexico. Though officials downplay the extent of the problems, the reports are enough to make a citizen—as Biden put it—gird his loins.
Mr. Postman, Bring Me A…
In mid-August, New Mexico suffered a “dirty bomb” scare—though the public wasn’t alerted until after the all clear.
According to the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, a FedEx truck emanating high-level gamma rays triggered alarms as it passed through DPS radiological monitors at the port of entry in Anthony, NM. The National Nuclear Security Administration—an agency within the US Department of Energy charged with promoting nuclear safety—just happened to be on site training DPS to detect radioactive materials.
In an unmarked 8-by-8-by-8-inch box in the FedEx truck, an NNSA response team found uranium ore, which can be processed into “yellowcake” uranium and then weapons-grade nuclear material.
DPS says the uranium was shipped by an out-of-state firefighter who teaches government agencies how to detect “dirty bombs”—the layman’s term for conventional explosives attached to radioactive material. But this was no exercise: The firefighter didn’t tell FedEx what he was shipping, a violation of laws that require radioactive packages be marked hazardous and only be transported by a certified driver.
“This is just stunning,” Page van der Linden, an Albuquerque-based contributing editor on nuclear issues for Daily Kos, tells SFR. “…Somebody screwed up somewhere.”
DPS, however, characterizes its role in the incident as a success, although it was, ultimately, a false alarm.
“It wasn’t really luck, but being at the right place at the right time with the right equipment,” DPS spokesman Peter Olson tells SFR.
Yet, many questions remain unanswered: DPS could not provide the firefighter’s name, where the package originated or its destination, explaining such information is handled by the NNSA. In turn, NNSA spokeswoman Casey Ruberg says since the team was there in a training capacity, it didn’t follow up or refer the incident to another law enforcement agency. That, she says, was DPS’ responsibility.
Meanwhile, FedEx representatives tell SFR they scrambled to find evidence of the incident but, as far as their records show, they were never alerted. That means FedEx hasn’t done anything to make sure the incident doesn’t recur.
“Whether [FedEx] is not telling the truth or the NNSA didn’t tell them, there was clearly a communication breakdown someplace,” van der Linden says.
Detecting the Detectors
New Mexico is one of 37 states that monitors and licenses private radioactive material usage—including radiation therapy and geological surveying tools—through an agreement with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Of course, this requires periodic oversight and, on Oct. 7, an NRC review board will finalize the results of a summer 2009 inspection on how the New Mexico Environment Department’s Radiation Control Bureau handles nearly 200 licensees.
A draft report provided to SFR gives the Environment Department a nearly perfect rating when it comes to technical training and quality of inspection, but NMED fell short when it came to filing and reporting incidents that involved theft, loss or damage of tools with radioactive components.
In three out of nine incidents reviewed, NMED did not report the occurrences to the NRC in a timely manner. Two were not reported at all.
According to the draft report, “[T]he review team attributed these weaknesses to a lack of adherence to established procedures.”
In all, seven nuclear devices—mostly geological gauges containing americium and cesium (both nuclear materials that can be used in dirty bombs)—have been stolen or lost since 2005.
“I would say that’s typical,” Radiation Control Bureau Chief John Parker says. “Certainly one of the more common problems is the loss of portable gauges. There are several that are unaccounted for.”
The NRC says the danger posed by these lost devices is nothing to lose sleep over.
“In the grand scheme of things, we don’t want radioactive material to be stolen, but the health and safety risks [those incidents] posed were very minor,” Aaron McCraw, the NRC manager who led the review, says.
McCraws says the team will recommend the most lenient of monitoring; the next full inspection will take place in 2013, with a two-year checkup in 2011.
“They’re in our good category,” McCraw says, though he wouldn’t name which states are in the “bad” category. “We do have a couple states that are on the other end,” he says, “including one to your immediate west.”
Our Very Own Chernobyl
In September, the inspector general for the US Department of Energy confirmed what anti-nuclear watchdogs long suspected: Poor training, poor planning and poor administration at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Los Alamos Fire Department over the last 10 years have presented a grave risk to the community.
It may also have been a poor use of tax dollars, since the DOE pays for the entire budget of the fire department, which is responsible for putting out fires at the lab.
This month, LANL and the National Nuclear Security Administration submitted an “implementation plan” to fix many of these issues, which include relocating fire stations, increasing safety personnel and upping the frequency of drills.
The nonprofit Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, however, points out that most of the plan’s “deliverables” don’t provide specific action, but call for more plans to be drafted later this year and in 2010.
“It just seems like it’s just part of their continuing practice of saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to write a plan to deal with this later,” CCNS Executive Director Joni Arends says. “These problems need to be addressed now.”
But officials at LANL say they have already addressed many of the issues, including enhanced training for every single Los Alamos firefighter.
“Things are definitely being done,” LANL spokesman Kevin Roark says. “We completely reorganized our fire-protection system by creating a new division. We’re hiring fire-protection engineers. We’re replacing many thousands of outdated sprinkler heads. Things are happening.”
Watchdog groups are skeptical. In a press release, Concerned Citizens and the Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group suggest that the New Mexico Environment Department needs to force LANL into compliance.
“There is no state or federal law that would allow us to enforce the inspector general report,” James Bearzi, chief of the NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau, responds. “To make a statement like the Environment Department should step up…is ludicrous.”
But the NMED may get a better idea of the capabilities of the emergency response system on Oct. 14, with a cross-jurisdictional “functional exercise” in which officials will have to respond to a simulated radioactive release.
“This type of exercise, bringing these emergency managers from all these different counties, hasn’t happened anywhere else in the state,” Bearzi says. “So, actually, I would say the folks in northern New Mexico are getting the extra attention they deserve.”