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An Idaho University Misses Small Amount of Plutonium, Fined $8,500

The school searched documents and found records from 2003 and 2004 saying the material was on campus and awaiting disposal.

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The last document mentioning the plutonium is dated Nov. 23, 2003. It said the Idaho National Laboratory didn’t want the plutonium and the school’s technical safety office had it “pending disposal of the next waste shipment.”
Idaho State University, wikimedia commons
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A small amount of radioactive, weapons-grade plutonium about the size of a U.S. quarter is missing from an Idaho university that was using it for research, leading federal officials on Friday to propose an $8,500 fine.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Idaho State University can’t account for about a 30th of an ounce (1 gram) of the material that’s used in nuclear reactors and to make nuclear bombs.

The amount is too small to make a nuclear bomb, agency spokesman Victor Dricks said, but could be used to make a dirty bomb to spread radioactive contamination.

“The NRC has very rigorous controls for the use and storage of radioactive materials as evidenced by this enforcement action,” he said of the proposed fine for failing to keep track of the material.

Dr. Cornelis Van der Schyf, vice president for research at the university, blamed partially completed paperwork from 15 years ago as the school tried to dispose of the plutonium.

“Unfortunately, because there was a lack of sufficient historical records to demonstrate the disposal pathway employed in 2003, the source in question had to be listed as missing,” he said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The radioactive source in question poses no direct health issue or risk to public safety.”

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Idaho State University can’t account for about a 30th of an ounce (1 gram) of the material that’s used in nuclear reactors and to make nuclear bombs.
Plutonium Representational Image, Pixabay

Idaho State University has a nuclear engineering program and works with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, considered the nation’s primary nuclear research lab and located about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northwest of the school.

The plutonium was being used to develop ways to ensure nuclear waste containers weren’t leaking and to find ways to detect radioactive material being illegally brought into the U.S. following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the school said in an email to the AP.

The university, which has 30 days to dispute the proposed fine, reported the plutonium missing on Oct. 13, according to documents released by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The agency said a school employee doing a routine inventory discovered the university could only account for 13 of its 14 plutonium sources, each weighing about the same small amount.

The school searched documents and found records from 2003 and 2004 saying the material was on campus and awaiting disposal. However, there were no documents saying the plutonium had been properly disposed.

The last document mentioning the plutonium is dated Nov. 23, 2003. It said the Idaho National Laboratory didn’t want the plutonium and the school’s technical safety office had it “pending disposal of the next waste shipment.”

The school also reviewed documents on waste barrels there and others transferred off campus since 2003, and opened and examined some of them. Finally, officials searched the campus but didn’t find the plutonium.

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The nuclear commission said senior university officials planned to return the school’s remaining plutonium to the Energy Department. It’s not clear if that has happened.

Energy Department officials didn’t return calls seeking comment Friday.

Dricks, the commission spokesman, said returning the plutonium was part of the school’s plan to reduce its inventory of radioactive material.

He said overall it has “a good record with the NRC.” (VOA)

 

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DNA Testing To Bring Together Separated Families

Thermo Fisher Scientific has offered to donate $1 million worth of its rapid test technology to help reunite families

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An immigrant child looks out from a U.S. Border Patrol bus leaving the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, June 23, 2018.
An immigrant child looks out from a U.S. Border Patrol bus leaving the U.S. Border Patrol Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, June 23, 2018. VOA

When kidnappers assaulted a woman on a Guatemala City street and ripped her infant daughter from her arms, DNA testing came to the rescue. A positive match helped reunite mother and child after the baby turned up abandoned at a church with no identification.

In addition to identifying kidnap victims, DNA tests have helped connect adoptees with their biological parents and U.S. immigrants with their families.

Now, DNA technology is being called upon to bring together families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Migrants’ advocates, however, say using genetic testing in this way raises technical, legal and ethical issues.

While several companies have offered to donate kits, leading migrant rights groups have turned them down.

Missing children

Genetic tests have helped an organization called DNA-Prokids reconnect more than 1,000 missing children with their families in Mexico, Nepal, Thailand and several other countries, including the kidnapping case in Guatemala City.

Jose Lorente, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Granada in Spain, started the organization. Lorente said he was moved by the children he saw on the streets in cities around the world. Many were victims of trafficking and had parents who were looking for them.

Lorente said he hopes to establish a worldwide network of DNA testing labs to help children everywhere.

“This is a way to send a message to people trafficking children,” he said. “The message is, from now on, it is not going to be so easy to steal and traffic a child because he or she will be immediately identified.”

Border tests

Lorente said DNA tests could help make sure children coming across the U.S.-Mexico border are not being trafficked.

“It’s going to be a small percentage,” Lorente said, but added there may be cases in which ill-intentioned adults claim children who are not their own.

U.S. officials already use DNA tests to confirm that immigrants seeking to join relatives in the United States are related.

A view inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, June 17, 2018.
A view inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, June 17, 2018. VOA

Genetic testing led the U.S. State Department to suspend a refugee program in 2008. Suspecting fraud in the family reunification program, officials tested about 3,000 applicants, mainly from Somalia, Ethiopia and Liberia. They confirmed a parental connection in less than 20 percent of the cases.

The program restarted in 2012, requiring a DNA test to prove that a parent and child are related.

New technology could enable those tests to be conducted at the border in as little as 90 minutes. Law enforcement agencies are evaluating rapid DNA tests that can match a person in police custody to a database of known criminals. The same technology could be used to test migrants.

Thermo Fisher Scientific has offered to donate $1 million worth of its rapid test technology to help reunite families separated at the border.

That followed offers from two ancestry companies, 23andMe and MyHeritage, to donate their technologies to the effort.

Privacy concerns

“Who’s going to keep that information?” asked communications manager Fernanda Durand with the migrant rights group CASA. She is worried the government could use migrants’ genetic fingerprints later without their consent.

“It’s very troubling,” she said.

Standard DNA tests can only reliably identify parent-child and sibling relationships. In refugee situations, advocates say, it’s not unusual for someone other than a child’s biological parent to care for him or her — for example, if a parent has been killed or detained.

The ancestry companies’ tests look at much more genetic information than standard DNA tests and can identify broader relationships; but, they can also generate much more sensitive data, including health information, and that would need to be protected. These tests also are not certified for this purpose by the organization that accredits DNA testing labs.

Plus, “Most of these migrants probably don’t have a high school education and have never encountered DNA in their lives,” noted genetic counselor Kayla Sheets, founder of Vibrant Gene Consulting. “How can they give informed consent [to be tested] if they don’t understand the technology?”

“This is a very, very vulnerable population,” Sheets added, and extra safeguards need to be in place when dealing with their genetic information. “And I’m just not certain that these companies, nor quite frankly the government, [are] quite set up for that yet.”

23andMe and MyHeritage say they are sensitive to the privacy concerns and will offer the tests only to legal aid groups working with migrant families.

Those groups have said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” according to communications director Jennifer Falcon at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

Separating parents from their children is bad enough, she said.

Also read: Trump Calls For Deporting Illegal Immigrants With No Court Hearings

“We don’t believe you can solve one civil rights violation by creating another potential violation with their privacy,” Falcon added. (VOA)