The U.S. government has spent months attempting to find radioactive material stolen out of a van in Texas last year.
In a new report published Monday, the Center for Public Integrity, a self-described nonpartisan news organization focused on corruption, reveals how plutonium, radioactive cesium and numerous radiation detectors were stolen outside of a San Antonio hotel in March 2017.
The incident began when two employees from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory were tasked with traveling to the Lone Star State to obtain radioactive materials from a research lab.
“Their task 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,” the CPI report states.
The team brought along small samples of plutonium and cesium to both calibrate their radiation detectors and help confirm the right items were retrieved.
After stopping for the evening at a Marriott hotel near Highway 410, the pair noticed the following morning that their vehicle’s windows were smashed and that the sensitive items, left on the backseat, had disappeared.
In the months since, state and federal officials have been unable to locate the missing materials.
“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,” the CPI says. “When asked, officials 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.”
Monday’s story is one of many surrounding radioactive substances to go missing from U.S. government control over the past several years.
“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—military stocks tended by the Department of Energy are much less transparent,” the report notes.
The CPI accuses the U.S. government, both currently and in previous administrations, of failing to protect radioactive materials.
The CPI also says documents show that just a month after the theft, “one of the specialists charged with safeguarding the equipment in San Antonio was given a ‘Vision Award’ by her colleagues.”
As much as one pound of plutonium and 45 pounds of high-enriched uranium loaned by the military to different groups including academic researchers is said to be missing.
The Idaho National Laboratory, however, has successfully returned more than “38,000 bits of radioactive material” from hospitals and researcher centers across the country.
Since the Cold War, the U.S. government as well as other nuclear powers have struggled to account for all of their radioactive materials.