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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

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)

 

Next Story

U.S. Envoy Advances Peace Talk Efforts In Afghanistan

The U.S. fulfilled a major Taliban demand last year of talking directly to the Americans, in an effort to jumpstart a peace process.

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USA, afghanistan, taliban, peace talks
U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, talks with local reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 18, 2018. VOA

Zalmay Khalilzad, the man responsible for overseeing America’s negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, arrived Tuesday night in Kabul, after making stops in India, the United Arab Emirates, and China. He is expected to visit Islamabad next.

His outreach to regional players continues despite what seems like a setback in talks with the Taliban.

“The [dialogue] process has halted for now so the venue and the date for a future meeting are not known,” a senior Taliban official who is privy to the developments confirmed to VOA earlier this week when asked whether their peace talks with the U.S. were still on track.

Talks scheduled with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia earlier this month were called off by the insurgent group after it came under pressure by the host government to meet with representatives of the current Afghan government.

Afghanistan, Peace Talks
A general view of the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, May 2, 2015, site of several past negotioations with the Taliban. VOA

The insurgent group pushed to change the venue to Doha, Qatar, but later canceled those talks as well over disagreements on the agenda.

The last significant round of talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban was held in December in Abu Dhabi. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the host government also took part in that round.

The Afghan government sent a delegation to Abu Dhabi in hopes of joining the talks, but the Taliban refused to meet them.

The group so far has resisted pressure from multiple actors, including the U.S., to meet with the Kabul administration, calling it a “puppet” regime unable to deliver on their demands.

The U.S. goal, according to a statement issued by its embassy in Kabul, is to “encourage the parties to come together at the negotiating table to reach a political settlement.”

Afghanistan, Peace Talks
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, right in backgroud, and U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, left in background, meet in Kabul, Nov.10, 2018. VOA

Khalilzad will meet with President Ashraf Ghani, CEO Abdullah Abdullah, and political leaders to “discuss the next steps in U.S. efforts to support and facilitate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process,” the statement added.

 

A feud among Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar also seems to be damaging the process, say various media reports. According to the Reuters news agency, Saudi and UAE diplomats refused to take part in any meeting held in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an unofficial political office. The two countries severed ties with Qatar in 2017, accusing the Gulf state of funding militants – a charge Doha denies.

In December, it was reported that President Donald Trump told the Pentagon to prepare for the withdrawal of 7,000 American military personnel from Afghanistan, which would reduce the U.S. presence in the country by half.

Also Read: Peace Talks With The U.S. Stalled: Taliban

The U.S. fulfilled a major Taliban demand last year of talking directly to the Americans, in an effort to jumpstart a peace process. Since then, several rounds of negotiations between the two have been held, albeit without the Kabul administration.

Meanwhile, security in Afghanistan continues to present a major challenge. An attack in Kabul Monday killed several people and wounded dozens of others. (VOA)