A small bit of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make a dirty bomb, missing from Idaho State University

An inspection report stated that someone in October last year had notified the NRC about an event "involving a lost sealed source containing special nuclear material."


                            A small bit of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make a dirty bomb, missing from Idaho State University

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Friday announced that the Idaho State University stands to face a fine of $8,500 after it lost one gram of weapons-grade plutonium. 

Reports state that although the amount is not enough to make a nuclear weapon out of it, it is enough to make a dirty bomb which could spread radiation, the Associated Press reported.

The NRC noted the missing plutonium while it was compiling an inspection report about how the state university controlled its radioactive material. The inspection report stated that someone in October last year had notified the NRC about an event "involving a lost sealed source containing special nuclear material."

A staff member at the university, during an inventory checkup, reported that the school had 13 one-gram pieces of plutonium in stock. However, the university, in its previous reports to the NRC, had mentioned having 14 pieces of the radioactive material.

Greenpeace activists march down Queen Street on their way to the British Consul Generals offices to deliver a letter opposing the imminent shipment of plutonium from Japan to the UK via the Tasman Sea. (Getty Images)
Greenpeace activists march down Queen Street on their way to the British Consul Generals offices to deliver a letter opposing the imminent shipment of plutonium from Japan to the UK via the Tasman Sea. (Getty Images)

The missing plutonium isotope (Pu-239) was reportedly used as a source material to demonstrate or test nuclear accident dosimeters, which is a device used for measuring exposure to radiation. The report states that the radioactive material was loaned to the Idaho State University in 1991.

The state university, in 2003, discovered that its plutonium was leaking a small amount of radiation. However, the leakage was below the threshold which would have required the university officials to report it to the NRC. The plutonium sample loaned to the university is a "sealed source," which requires it be stored in a manner which prevents any leakage of radioactive material.

Shortly after the incident, the university removed the plutonium frm regular use and said that it intended to return the source to the Idaho National Laboratory, according to reports.

However, after finding out that there were no records of the transfer at the lab, the university launched a search and reached out to its staff members and waste brokers to determine where the missing material was. Reports state that the university officials even opened nuclear waste drums in an effort to find the missing plutonium.

The university subsequently contacted the NRC in October after they did not succeed in locating the material.