Idaho State University has lost 1 gram of weapons-grade plutonium — nuclear material that was being used for research purposes before it was misplaced, the Associated Press reports. In response, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has proposed an $8,500 fine against the university.
An NRC spokesperson, Victor Dricks, said that the amount of material was too small to create a nuclear weapon, but said it could be used in a dirty bomb meant to spread the radioactive substance. The university’s VP of research, Dr. Cornelis Van der Schyf, blamed incomplete record keeping for the loss, reiterating that the lost material poses no risk to the public.
“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,” he told the AP. “The radioactive source in question poses no direct health issue or risk to public safety.”
The discrepancy was discovered by a school employee during the course of a routine inventory investigation. The employee found that the university could not account for one of its 14 samples of plutonium. Records from 2003 indicate that the material was on the campus and had been marked for disposal. There are no records to indicate that the disposal took place, however.
The last known record of the missing plutonium comes from November 23, 2003, which states that it had been marked “pending disposal of the next waste shipment.”
School officials reviewed documents relating to waste barrels that had been shipped off campus but found no trace of the plutonium. A search of the campus also yielded no results — forcing the university to conclude that it was missing.
The material in question was being used by the university’s nuclear engineering program, which partners with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. The university was researching means of ensuring that containers of nuclear waste did not leak as well as ways to better detect the material.
The university has 30 days to dispute the NRC’s proposed fine though it has not indicated whether it will or not. Dricks has said that, overall, the university has a “good record with the NRC.” The missing material is a shame; after all, NASA plans to use nukes to save us all from killer asteroids.