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US plutonium stolen from Texas Marriott parking lot

A puck-shaped piece of Plutonium. (Savannah River Site/Flickr)
July 18, 2018

A recent report revealed that plutonium was stolen from the car of two security personnel from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

The incident occurred in March 2017 when the two specialists were tasked with retrieving nuclear materials from a nonprofit research lab in San Antonio, Texas, the Idaho Statesman reported on Monday.

They were expected to transport the materials to a government facility in Idaho that houses a stockpile of nuclear materials for the military and other organizations.

The team used radiation detectors and samples of other materials to verify the items. The materials contained “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 two specialists stopped at a Marriott hotel nearby Highway 410, in an area reportedly known for high levels of crime. They left the detectors and materials on the back seat of their rental vehicle.

The next morning, they discovered the vehicle’s window smashed, and both detectors and nuclear materials missing.

The items remain missing more than a year later.

Plutonium is considered one of the most dangerous materials in the world.

Although it was not specified how much plutonium and cesium had been stolen, INL spokeswoman Sarah Neumann confirmed that it was not enough to be used in a nuclear bomb.

There have been many instances of plutonium having reportedly gone missing from government stockpiles over the years due to less transparency and regulation over these stockpiles.

Significant gaps exist between the amount of plutonium produced and the amount accounted for. The gaps are prevalent at production, storage, research and disposal facilities, as well as during transfer between facilities.

Former President Barack Obama hosted a Nuclear Security Summit in March 2016, during which he prioritized the security of nuclear materials and touted the security standards in the U.S.

The administration said the standards “meet or exceed the recommendations for civilian nuclear materials” established by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

President Donald Trump has also spoken on the security of nuclear materials.

Last year, he told a military crowd that “we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.”

In February, the Trump Administration released a Nuclear Posture Review to emphasize nuclear materials’ security. It declared that “preventing the illicit acquisition of a nuclear weapon, nuclear materials, or related technology and expertise by a violent extremist organization is a significant U.S. national security priority.”

The Department of Energy has warned of the significant health risks due to handling nuclear materials, and called for stronger accountability of these materials.