U.S. Energy Department Cannot Account for Nuclear Materials at 15 Locations

(Feb. 24) -A new report reveals lax accounting over some U.S. nuclear materials.
(Feb. 24) -A new report reveals lax accounting over some U.S. nuclear materials.

WASHINGTON -- A number of U.S. institutions with licenses to hold nuclear material reported to the Energy Department in 2004 that the amount of material they held was less than agency records indicated. But rather than investigating the discrepancies, Energy officials wrote off significant quantities of nuclear material from the department's inventory records.

That's just one of the findings of a report released yesterday by Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman that concluded "the department cannot properly account for and effectively manage its nuclear materials maintained by domestic licensees and may be unable to detect lost or stolen material."

Auditors found that Energy could not accurately account for the quantities and locations of nuclear material at 15 out of 40, or 37 percent, of facilities reviewed. The materials written off included 20,580 grams of enriched uranium, 45 grams of plutonium, 5,001 kilograms of normal uranium and 189,139 kilograms of depleted uranium.

"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 report says. "Even in small quantities normally held by individual domestic licensees, special nuclear materials such as enriched uranium and plutonium, if not properly handled, potentially pose serious health hazards."

Auditors also found that waste processing facilities could not locate or explain the whereabouts of significant quantities of uranium and other nuclear material that Energy Department records showed they held. In another case, Energy officials had no record of the fact that one academic institution had loaned a 32-gram plutonium-beryllium source to another institution.

The audit was a follow-up to a 2001 probe that found similar record-keeping problems. "Key commitments made by the department were not completed nearly eight years after our earlier audit," Friedman reported.

More than 100 academic and commercial institutions and government agencies lease nuclear materials that are owned by Energy. The department, along with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is supposed to track these materials through the centralized accounting system known as the Nuclear Materials Management and Safeguards System, or NMMSS.

"Due to the inconsistencies documented in our report, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the department to accurately identify the type and quantity of its nuclear materials affected if an incident occurred at one of the sites whose NMMSS inventory we could not verify," the inspector general stated in Monday's report.

In a written response to the report, Glenn Podonsky, the chief health, safety and security officer at Energy, largely concurred with the findings and recommendations for improving inventory records.

February 24, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- A number of U.S. institutions with licenses to hold nuclear material reported to the Energy Department in 2004 that the amount of material they held was less than agency records indicated. But rather than investigating the discrepancies, Energy officials wrote off significant quantities of nuclear material from the department's inventory records.