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Little-known U.S. agency hunts down radioactive castoffs

March 03, 2009|Richard C. Paddock

SUNNYVALE — The four-man government disposal team arrived Monday from Los Alamos, N.M., to take away the small canister of plutonium. Weighing just 1.3 grams, the plutonium-238 isotope had been owned by a Silicon Valley company for nearly 30 years and was stored safely in a 10-foot hole in the ground.

But in the wrong hands, federal officials say, the highly radioactive isotope could pose a serious threat to public safety and conceivably provide terrorists with material for a dirty bomb.

The crew from the little-known National Nuclear Security Administration pulled the plutonium up by a rope, examined it to identify its origin and placed it into a specially lined barrel. The operation took only a few minutes, but federal officials were satisfied that they had eliminated a threat to national safety.

"This is a large PU-238 source," said Julia Whitworth, a senior project leader who oversaw the Sunnyvale operation. "We are fulfilling the threat reduction mission to remove material that could cause national security or public safety concerns."

Radioactive materials are used widely in hospitals, oil fields, manufacturing and research centers across the United States. One of the agency's responsibilities is to recover abandoned or unused isotopes from these facilities.

The isotope removed Monday is less dangerous than plutonium-239, which can be used in nuclear bombs, and emits a less potent radiation that can easily be shielded. But it is highly hazardous if inhaled or ingested.

Normally publicity-shy, the agency invited a Times reporter and photographer to witness the plutonium recovery. It was the first time any media had been allowed to witness a U.S. operation, the agency said.

The agency works in more than 130 countries to recover nuclear materials. It has collected more than 20,600 dangerous sources of radiation in the United States since the program began 12 years ago.

But the agency is barely able to stay even. Between 2,500 and 3,000 radiological sources are registered each year as unwanted. Last year, the agency's teams recovered 3,153, the largest number yet.

It has a backlog of 8,800 known items. Some officials estimate that there may be tens of thousands of other radioactive sources that the agency has not identified.

"The world is more dangerous today than when Russia had missiles pointing at us and we had missiles point at Russia," said Kenneth Baker, the agency's principal deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation. "This type of material you saw today is one that can make a dirty bomb. One reason we're so scared is there is a lot of this material around the United States."

The plutonium in question was purchased in 1981 by a Silicon Valley company that develops radiation testing devices. The Times agreed not to identify the company or its employees by name.

Contained in a steel canister slightly larger than a D-cell battery, the plutonium had a strength of 22 curies when it was new. With a half-life of 86 years, it now measures 18.3 curies.

Stored inside a building on a tree-lined street not far from U.S. 101, the isotope has outlived its usefulness. The firm began using an electrical neutron generator several years ago and had been hoping for some time to dispose of the plutonium.

The recovery crew's first move was to sweep the plutonium storage area and make sure no radiation was leaking. It wasn't.

The company's workers had always handled the isotope with a 10-foot pole.

The federal team preferred to pull it up with a rope that was attached to the canister. Latex gloves were the only protective gear they wore, but they sought to minimize their exposure by working quickly.

Using pliers and a Leatherman tool, they tried to unscrew the canister housing to find its identification numbers. But after decades of disuse, the screws were stuck. After a minute, the team leader decided that obtaining more information from inside the canister was not worth the risk. They placed the isotope into the barrel, which was lined with plastic and metal shielding.

The drum will be shipped by a commercial carrier to Los Alamos National Laboratory, where it will be stored with other nuclear material that the agency has collected. There is no permanent disposal site for the material.

Company officials said they were pleased to be rid of the plutonium. The firm had been trying for years to find someone to take it off their hands.

"There's no place in California to dispose of it," said the company's radiation safety officer.

The Sunnyvale firm was not required to pay a fee for the removal operation. The government believes the cost of a nuclear disaster could be far greater than the $15-million annual expense of the national recovery program, agency officials say. Although a bomb made with a small amount of plutonium-238 might not kill anyone outright, it could cause long-term health effects and require the lengthy closure of the area as it is cleaned of radioactive material.

"It would cause a panic," Baker said. "We would have to block off the area for quite some time. You are talking about a large cost to clean it up."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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