Don’t panic, but some plutonium and cesium samples – both famously radioactive elements – were stolen from the back of an SUV rented by two US Department of Energy (DOE) employees in San Antonio, Texas. It appears that they were left in the vehicle as the two stayed overnight at a Marriott hotel, and someone nabbed them in the dead of night and made for the hills.
These shenanigans were revealed by a report by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a nonprofit investigative journalism group that explains that the theft took place in 2017. As you may have noticed, it’s now mid-2018, and the two samples are still missing.
Now, I meant it above when I said don’t panic. Sure, the samples are clearly dangerous; forgetting the far more difficult venture of trying to build a nuclear weapon, they could hypothetically be used in a less destructive, cruder but still deadly “dirty” bomb, one that spreads hazardous material all over the place using conventional explosives.
Saying that, the samples taken from the DOE officials were apparently very small. They were originally picked up from a local research facility, which wouldn’t typically have large amounts of radioactive material contained within them anyway. A DOE spokesperson told BBC News that the nuclear materials were “coin-sized” and had “negligible amounts of radioactivity.”
At this point, there’s no indication as to who stole them, so there’s every chance it was an opportunistic thief that didn’t quite know what exactly it was they were stealing. After all, the CPI notes that the hotel was in a neighborhood with a high crime rate.
There’s no indication that anyone is in any danger neither, so don’t think this is the start of a series of 24 or Homeland.
Although the theft was reported by the two employees – both of whom worked for the Idaho National Laboratory – local law enforcement officials opined that such sensitive material should never have been left in the car in the first place.
Perhaps the most unnerving thing about this whole tale is that the head of the DOE is Rick Perry, the ever-bumbling member of the Trump administration. You wouldn’t think it from Perry’s constant tangents into climate change denial and fossil fuel promotion, but one of the DOE’s primary objectives is to ensure nuclear material is handled safely.
Yes, the DOE hasn’t been, well, ideal at undertaking this task before: The CPI report does explain, rather unnervingly, that this theft is “now part of a much larger amount of plutonium that over the years has gone quietly missing from stockpiles owned by the US military, often without any public notice.”
Still, there’s something distinctly chilling about this recent endeavor knowing that Perry is at the helm – a man for whom basic facts prove to be frequently elusive.
Weirdly, unlike civilian stocks of nuclear materials, military stocks are not closely monitored, nor are their practices in this regard particularly transparent. The CPI notes that this has been the case across various administrations, which raises more questions than it does answers at present.
This loss happens so frequently, in fact, that the government even has an acronym for it: MUF, or “material unaccounted for”. The CPI report is worth reading in full, particularly if you enjoy anxiety.
If it makes you feel any better, the report also points out that the Russians “know even less about their own missing bomb materials.” So, you know, America’s not the absolute worst at this. USA! USA!