July 20, 2018: This story has been updated.
Two security experts from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory drove to San Antonio, Texas, in March 2017 with a sensitive mission: to retrieve dangerous nuclear materials from a nonprofit research lab there.
Their task, according to documents and interviews, was to ensure that the radioactive materials did not fall into the wrong hands on the way back to Idaho, where the government maintains a stockpile of nuclear explosive materials for the military and others.
To ensure they got the right items, the specialists from Idaho brought radiation detectors and small samples of dangerous materials to calibrate them: specifically, a plastic-covered disk of plutonium, a material that can be used to fuel nuclear weapons, and another of cesium, a highly radioactive isotope that could potentially be used in a so-called “dirty” radioactive bomb.
But when they stopped at a Marriott hotel just off Highway 410, in a high-crime neighborhood filled with temp agencies and ranch homes, they left those sensors on the back seat of their rented Ford Expedition. When they awoke the next morning, the window had been smashed and the special valises holding these sensors and nuclear materials had vanished.
More than a year later, state and federal officials don’t know where the plutonium – one of the most valuable and dangerous substances on earth – is. Nor has the cesium been recovered.
No public announcement of the March 21 incident has been made by either the San Antonio police or by the FBI, which the police consulted by telephone. When asked, officials at the lab and in San Antonio declined to say exactly how much plutonium and cesium were missing. But Idaho lab spokeswoman Sarah Neumann said the plutonium in particular wasn’t enough to be fashioned into a nuclear bomb.
It is nonetheless now part of a much larger amount of plutonium that over the years has gone quietly missing from stockpiles owned by the U.S. military, often without any public notice.
Unlike civilian stocks, which are closely monitored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and openly regulated – with reports of thefts or disappearances sent to an international agency in Vienna — the handling of military stocks tended by the Department of Energy is much less transparent.
The Energy Department, which declined comment for this story, doesn’t talk about instances of lost and stolen nuclear material produced for the military. It also has been less willing than the commission to punish its contractors when they lose track of such material, several incidents suggest.
That nontransparent approach doesn’t match the government’s rhetoric.
Protecting bomb-usable materials, like the plutonium that went missing in San Antonio, “is an overriding national priority,” President Obama’s press office said in a fact sheet distributed during the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit that he hosted in late March 2016, a Washington event attended by more than 50 heads of state.
The administration boasted in the declaration that America’s security standards for military-grade materials “meet or exceed the recommendations for civilian nuclear materials” made by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. It also touted the strength of its tracking of such materials, which it said would “ensure timely detection and investigation of anomalies, and deter insider theft/diversion.”
The United States also boasted about its transparency, explaining that it “has published studies and reviews of nuclear security incidents, including lessons learned and corrective actions taken.”
President Donald Trump, speaking to a military audience at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 21, 2017, parroted the Obama administration’s refrain that “we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.”
The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, released in February, similarly emphasized the threat posed by nuclear terrorism, and asserted that “preventing the illicit acquisition of a nuclear weapon, nuclear materials, or related technology and expertise by a violent extremist organization is a significant U.S. national security priority.”
But America’s record of safeguarding such materials isn’t sterling. Gaps between the amount of plutonium that nuclear weapons companies have produced and the amount that the government can actually locate occur frequently enough for officials to have created an acronym for it – MUF, meaning “material unaccounted for.”