An investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found dangerous safety issues at several nuclear weapons labs.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. â€” Federal regulators are launching an investigation into the improper shipment a week and a half ago of nuclear material from Los Alamos National Laboratory here to other federal labs around the country.
In a statement, National Nuclear Security Administration officials confirmed Friday that New Mexico lab officials informed them that procedures werenâ€™t followed when shipping what was described as small amounts of â€œspecial nuclear materialâ€ to facilities in California and South Carolina.
The material had been packaged for ground transport. But instead it was shipped via an air cargo service, which federal regulations don’t allow.
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The actions mark the latest gaffe from Los Alamos, the lab about 50 miles northeast of Albuquerque that created the atomic bomb. Criticism has been intensifying over the labâ€™s history of safety lapses as work ramps up to produce key components for the nationâ€™s nuclear weapons cache.
â€œThis failure to follow established procedures is absolutely unacceptable,â€ Frank Klotz, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said in a statement.
The agency oversees the lab along with other facilities that make up the U.S. nuclear complex. Klotz said itâ€™s required that contractors who manage the labs, production plants and waste repositories rigorously adhere to what he called the highest safety and security standards as part of their national security work.
Once the investigation of the shipments to California and South Carolina is complete, the federal agency said any responsible parties will be held accountable.
Los Alamos lab officials declined to comment and referred questions to the National Nuclear Safety Administration.
Home to some of the nationâ€™s top nuclear scientists and other researchers, Los Alamos has struggled for years to address management and oversight issues along with more recent safety concerns about the handling of radioactive waste and plutonium.
A Center for Public Integrity series that began last week cited numerous internal reports and other documents outlining federal regulatorsâ€™ concerns about safety lapses at the lab over the years, including a plutonium spill in summer 2016 and workers in 2011 positioning plutonium rods in a way that could have been disastrous.
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In 2014, a chemical reaction stemming from Los Alamos inappropriately packaging a barrel of radioactive waste caused a radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., the governmentâ€™s only underground nuclear waste repository.
That misstep resulted in costly recovery work and a backlog in the multibillion-dollar program for cleaning up waste from decades of research and bomb-making.
Reports in recent months say that Los Alamos failed more than once to accurately document and label hazardous liquid that was shipped to a disposal facility in Colorado.
Klotz noted earlier this week that safety is paramount and that his agency withheld more than $82 million in contractor payments over safety and operational issues at the lab between 2013 and 2016.
The current $2.2 billion contract for Los Alamos National Security LLC to manage the lab ends in 2018. Some critics have said putting the contract out to bid will offer an opportunity to make changes at Los Alamos.
Greg Mello of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group, which works toward nuclear disarmament, said the concern with the latest incident is that air-pressure changes could have compromised the packaging of the nuclear material once it was aboard the cargo plane.
â€œItâ€™s like a cheap ballpoint pen in your shirt pocket,â€ he said. â€œIt turned out fine this time, but the deeper problem is why are there so many kinds of errors.â€
Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: @susanmbryanNM
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