Idaho State University is in some regulatory hot water after what is being described as a potentially deadly oversight regarding a small amount of plutonium that had been stored on campus.
University sources indicate that the radioactive material was disposed of about 15 years ago, but point to possibly botched paperwork as the genesis of the current controversy.
“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,” said Vice President of Research Dr. Cornelis Van der Schyf.
Though he expressed his assurance that the missing sample was not a health or safety threat, experts point out that the weapons-grade plutonium was present in quantities sufficient to produce a dirty bomb, according to Fox News. The amount was approximately the size of a quarter.
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Researchers at the school had been studying new technologies that would make containers used to store nuclear waste more secure. Their work was also aimed at preventing potentially harmful radioactive material from entering the U.S.
All but one of the 14 samples were properly documented upon disposal. A subsequent inventory led a university employee to discover the exception.
A final reference to the disputed sample came in November 2003 and indicated it was “pending disposal of the next waste shipment.”
The undocumented fate of the dangerous material led to a thorough search for either the sample or additional evidence of its disposal. In addition to staff checking waste barrels and paperwork on campus, regulators were dispatched to the school to conduct their own search. No evidence of the missing plutonium was ever found.
Though the university reportedly announced plans to turn over all of its remaining plutonium to the Department of Energy, the agency did not immediately respond to requests for a comment.
It remains unclear from existing reports whether the university retained possession of any additional samples.
Nearly seven months after the radioactive material was reported missing, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced an $8,500 fine, which the university has 30 days to dispute.
Spokesperson Victor Dricks said the agency “has very rigorous controls for the use and storage of radioactive materials as evidence by this enforcement action.”
He endorsed the school’s reputation as a steward of hazardous elements like plutonium, explaining that the effort to dispose of its samples in the early 2000s was part of a plan to pare down its collection of radioactive material.
Dricks said the university has “a good record” with the commission.
The U.S. Department of Energy operates one of the nation’s leading nuclear research labs, the Idaho National Laboratory, about an hour from the Idaho State University campus. The two entities have worked together on related projects in the past.
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