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Radiation risksLab mistakenly ships radioactive material aboard commercial plane

Published 14 July 2017

Employees at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have been fired and disciplinary action against other personnel was taken after small amounts of radioactive material were mistakenly shipped aboard a commercial cargo plane. Nuclear experts say the mishap could have led to serious consequences. The rapid pressure changes during flights could have damaged the packaging, causing radiation to escape.

Employees at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have been fired and disciplinary action against other personnel was taken after small amounts of radioactive material were mistakenly shipped aboard a commercial cargo plane.

Officials at the lab did not offer any details regarding disciplinary actions, except to say that those individuals involved in the mishap, including those in higher management, have been held to account.

Las Cruces Sun-News reports that Los Alamos has transferred responsibility for the shipment of some nuclear materials to another division within the lab and has imposed additional controls for making shipping labels to prevent similar problems in the future.

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, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) launched an investigation after the lab admitted that procedures for shipping small amounts of “special nuclear material” to facilities in California and South Carolina were not followed.

The radioactive material had been packaged for ground transport, but by mistake was shipped via a commercial air cargo service.

U.S. regulations prohibit the shipment of radioactive material by air.

Nuclear experts say the mishap could have led to serious consequences. The rapid pressure changes during flights could have damaged the packaging, causing radiation to escape.

When the shipment arrived at its destination, it was immediately tested, but no contamination or loss of radioactive material were detected.

The Sun-News notes that the incident was the latest in a series of safety mishaps at Los Alamos – which is especially worrisome, as the lab is set to ramp up production of a key plutonium component for the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.

Federal regulators are in the process of reviewing the lab’s recent safety record.

Lab officials say that improvements have been made at the lab’s plutonium facility – the same facility where the atomic bomb was developed during the Second World War.

The lab said that the personnel actions and the changes to the shipping procedure are only the first steps in a broad campaign to improve safety measures.

Los Alamos National Security LLC manages the complex under a $2.2 billion contract which ends in 2018. Critics suggest putting the management contract up for bids would offer incentives to make even more changes at Los Alamos.