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Tool thefts from lab ‘hot zones’ raise concerns about security, health risks

Posted: Tuesday, December 16, 2014 11:00 pm | Updated: 12:15 am, Wed Dec 17, 2014.

By Patrick Malone
The New Mexican

Tools that may have been exposed to radioactive contamination vanished from a secure area of Los Alamos National Laboratory earlier this year in a series of thefts that raise questions about lab security.

Between May and August, the lab reported tools stolen on at least three occasions from Technical Area 54, the largest waste disposal zone on the lab’s sprawling hilltop campus. LANL holds more than 100 contaminated sites from years of storing waste generated during development of nuclear weapons.

About a dozen items, including impact wrenches, a power screwdriver and weed trimmers, were reported stolen and remain missing, according to police reports. Lab sources report that up to eight impact wrenches, 11 batteries and eight chargers disappeared from Technical Area 54 over the summer. The combined value of the missing tools reported to police is about $1,000.

A national expert on radiation exposure said the tools likely pose little health risk but could be dangerous if they were exposed to toxic chemicals that were present in the area where the tools had been used.

Neither the lab nor the Los Alamos Police Department issued a public statement warning about the thefts. Los Alamos police Cmdr. Preston Ballew said the department did not issue a public warning about the tools because “we’re not necessarily going to get the public up in a spin.”

The lab did not answer detailed questions about the theft but said in a statement Tuesday: “We are confident the tools were not contaminated but can’t verify without actual testing/sampling.” No contamination was found during a radiological survey of parts of the area where some of the missing tools had been, the lab reported.

Lab staff interviewed by police, however, referred to the area as a “hot zone” and a “hot spot,” meaning they could have radioactive contamination.

“All tools used in the ‘hot zone’ are never released and always put in a large drum and disposed as waste,” according to one of the police reports.

The investigation into the thefts has been hampered and has since been closed because the lab would not turn over the names of workers who had access to the area, Ballew said. According to police reports, lab officials who reported the thefts were unwilling to share the identities of the 70 to 75 employees who had access to the area, and no security cameras are trained on the area.

“If they choose not to give us information, it makes it hard for us to investigate,” Ballew said. “But victims are victims, and whether victims tell you the entire story or not, it’s not like we’re going to twist their arms.”

News of the thefts comes as the lab is already under scrutiny for its handling of radioactive materials left over from decades of atomic weapons research. A drum of waste from Los Alamos burst earlier this year at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, contaminating at least 20 workers and shutting down the underground repository for what could be several years.

George Anastas of Albuquerque, a radiation and nuclear-safety expert with more than four decades of experience studying the risks associated with nuclear waste, said the dosage of radioactive contaminants likely to be found on a tool from a hot zone may pose little health risk. In his years of working closely with the U.S. Department of Energy sites across the nation, Anastas said, he’s only aware of a few instances in which contact with contaminated items alone could be blamed for adverse health effects.

However, he said, the risk posed by the tools is elevated by uncertainties about the types of potential chemical contaminants and the possibility that unsuspecting people could come into contact with the contamination.

“What I’d be concerned about would be, first, radioactive contamination of a car where kids and others could be involved,” Anastas said, “and second of all would be chemicals.”

When radioactive contamination is ingested, which can happen through routine acts such as eating after touching a contaminated item, the health threat is greater than when exposure is external, Anastas said.

“Impact wrenches were probably used to open drums of waste or close drums of waste, therefore there’s a high likelihood that the equipment was contaminated,” he said. “If it’s in that area, you have to assume that it was contaminated.”

Asked whether the lab or police should have issued a public alert about the thefts, Anastas said: “I can see some value in a short statement that says Los Alamos National Laboratory has had these things stolen which may be contaminated.”

“Then you’re the good guy,” he added. “It would earn you credibility with the public.”

Over the years, LANL’s security practices have come under fire from federal evaluators. A stolen thumb drive containing lab data that was recovered during a 2006 drug raid generated embarrassing headlines for the lab, and as far back as 2003, U.S. Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., blasted security at Los Alamos during a congressional hearing. Greenwood criticized the lab then for what he described as “hundreds of thousands of dollars in unchecked theft of government property, including scores if not hundreds of lab computers and hundreds of other lost items, simply written off the lab’s books each year.”

“Simply put,” he said at the time, “cases of theft, misuse or loss of government property are not aggressively investigated, and usually no one is held accountable when it occurs.”

As recently as 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General investigated missing tools at LANL, according to a federal log of investigations, though the type of tools and the results of the investigation were not available Tuesday.

Ballew said missing lab tools and equipment are reported to his department “quite often,” even though the limited flow of information to outside investigators seldom leads to arrests or recovery of stolen items. He said this is the first time in his 10 years with the force that he recalls the lab reporting the theft of equipment potentially contaminated with radioactive material.

“That’s kind of significant,” he said.

On May 12, a lab project manager, Tommy Mojica, told Los Alamos Police Department Cpl. Jack Casias that an impact wrench had been taken from a tool building in Technical Area 54. Mojica told police a similar tool had been stolen from there before.

“Mojica further stated that the impact tool which was taken could have been contaminated with radiation,” according to Casias’ report.

In the same report, Mojica said he was obliged to report the theft “even though nothing can be done.”

On July 16, Genevieve Fernandez, a supervisor from Technical Area 54, told Los Alamos Police Department Cpl. Timothy Lonz that another impact wrench along with a charger and two batteries had been stolen.

“Genevieve explained to me that the area in which the tools were taken from were exposed to radiation, but she was unable to explain to me what kind of radiation,” Lonz wrote in his report. She also refused to give police the names of up to 75 employees with access to the area where the tools were last seen.

“The scene was cleared without further follow-up because the area that the item was stolen was not an area officers are allowed in unless given permission due to the hazards at the complex,” Lonz reported.

Another impact wrench, two weed trimmers, three weed trimmer harnesses, three face shields with earmuffs and a full roll of weed trimmer line were reported missing from Technical Area 54 on Aug. 18, according to a police report, but it did not say whether the tools had been contaminated. Once again, “Los Alamos National Labs would not release any information regarding employees with access to this site,” according to the report.

Ballew said he trusts internal investigators at the lab are still pursuing answers about where the tools went, but he admits the lab’s investigators have not shared any progress reports about these or other open theft investigations with Los Alamos police.

The breakdown of jurisdiction over crime committed at the lab squarely places responsibility for the theft investigations with the Los Alamos Police Department. Ballew said federal investigators have jurisdiction over terrorist activity and special nuclear materials, but other police matters are in his department’s jurisdiction.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization that closely monitors the lab, said contaminated tools could pose a health hazard to anyone who has direct contact with them. But more than the threats of radioactive tools lost in Northern New Mexico, he’s concerned about what the police reports reveal about the culture at the lab.

“I think the laboratory should cooperate fully with the police,” Mello said. “Failure to do so upholds a culture that says laws from outside the lab don’t apply.”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or pmalone@sfnewmexican.com.


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