Considering the potential harm that even a small amount of nuclear material can cause, most people assume that it is diligently guarded and tracked by government agencies, and, in the case of civilian material, they’d be right. The nuclear material used for reactors, research, or medical purposes is tracked by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which publishes an annual report of missing or stolen material.
When it comes to the military’s nuclear stockpile, however, oversight and transparency are a much bigger problem. A 2017 incident is now drawing attention and criticism for the government’s mismanagement of nuclear material.
In March 2017, two security experts from the Department of Energy were tasked with transporting an undisclosed amount of plutonium and cesium from a San Antonio research lab to the Idaho National Laboratory, but the material was stolen after being left in the backseat of a rented car in their hotel parking lot.
Two security experts from the Department of Energy left plutonium and radioactive cesium in the back seat of their rental car at a hotel in a high-crime neighbourhood. Someone smashed the window and stole it. https://t.co/3Agctiu6CF
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) July 16, 2018
That incident alone is unsettling but it has also drawn attention to the government’s disturbing record of lost or stolen nuclear material. It happens so often there’s even an acronym: MUF, or material unaccounted for.
Shockingly, no public announcement was ever made regarding the 2017 theft. No one has disclosed the amount stolen, but an Idaho lab spokeswoman, Sarah Neumann, assures it wasn’t enough to build a bomb.
Given how easily the nuclear material was stolen, there were some obvious questions about the security “experts” who lost it.
Just threw it into the back like the stuff was orange juice??? Are you freakin serious??
— Momathena (@momathena) July 16, 2018
— Amen Amachigh (@1Ameezy) July 16, 2018
This is a use of the word “expert” with which I am hitherto unfamiliar. https://t.co/F8Bvl0Hvzp
— Gary Black (@gw_black) July 16, 2018
Why would they be staying in a hotel in a “high-crime neighborhood”??
— Kaluš (@fitserbmomma) July 16, 2018
"security experts" pic.twitter.com/Cz7qoM9INU
— angela kleis (@akkleis) July 16, 2018
And many are wondering what happened to the lost material.
On the next episodes of Pawn Stars… pic.twitter.com/KbznW9EqII
— Rusty Shackleford (@SecuritySampson) July 16, 2018
Watch out for new superheroes in the San Antonio area.
— T.O. Resident (@TO_Resident) July 16, 2018
— Julie Brannon (@DoctorB99) July 17, 2018
While the Trump administration prioritized keeping nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists, some worry the Department of Energy may not be up to the task.
Nice going, Rick Perry.
— ❄️Turner❄️???? (@TamiSFGiantFan) July 16, 2018
This is what happens when trump puts people in charge who have no idea what they are doing! Sec. Perry, what the hell is going on at the Dept of Energy‼️?‼️?‼️
— ☀️?LadySif⚔️Resists?☀️trump = tryanny (@LadySif2017) July 16, 2018
I’m sure he’s on it. pic.twitter.com/5K9p26gtP2
— Emily A. (@emzorbit) July 16, 2018
Over a year after the incident, police still haven’t recovered the stolen material, but Twitter has an idea where they should look.
— Chris Regan (@EverydayRegan) July 16, 2018