ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (CBS SF & AP) — Employees have been fired and other personnel actions have been taken at one of the premier nuclear weapons laboratories in the U.S. after small amounts of radioactive material were mistakenly shipped aboard a commercial cargo plane.
Officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory declined to provide any details about the personnel actions, only to say that those who had a role in the mix-up — from individual workers to those in the management chain — have been held accountable.
Los Alamos also has transferred responsibility for the shipment of certain nuclear materials to another division within the lab and has created more controls for making shipping labels in an effort to avoid problems in the future.
The lab shipped 100 grams of plutonium by FedEx air instead of by ground to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, according to news reports.
“Although these shipments arrived safely at their destinations and no one was hurt, this mistake, taken together with other mistakes in recent years, is unacceptable and is in the process of being addressed promptly and thoroughly,” the lab said in a statement. “Our response to this incident is not business as usual.”
In June, the National Nuclear Security Administration said it was launching an investigation after the lab informed the agency that procedures were not followed when shipping small amounts of “special nuclear material” to facilities in California and South Carolina.
The material had been packaged for ground transport. But instead it was shipped via a commercial air cargo service, which isn’t allowed under U.S. regulations.
Nuclear watchdog groups had voiced concerns, saying the lab was lucky to avoid a disaster given that rapid pressure changes are possible during a flight and the packaging wasn’t appropriate for such a trip.
Tests done on the shipments once they arrived at their destinations confirmed no contamination or loss of radioactive material. However, the incident marked the latest in a string of safety lapses at Los Alamos that have fueled criticism as the lab prepares to ramp up production of a key plutonium component for the nation’s nuclear weapons cache.
An independent panel of federal regulators has been reviewing the lab’s track record as well as its ability to safely work with plutonium.
Lab officials have said in recent months that improvements have been made when it comes to the plutonium facility at the northern New Mexico complex, where the atomic bomb was secretly developed during World War II.
This week, the lab reiterated its intentions to address concerns, saying the personnel actions and the changes made to the shipping process are the first of broad and far-reaching actions it plans to take.
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 up for bids will offer an opportunity to make more changes at Los Alamos.