Well this isn't good. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency tasked with administering the nation's supply of fissile materials, announced on Friday that Idaho State University may be subject to fine for losing a gram of weapons-grade plutonium. While the quarter-sized chunk of radioactive rock isn't nearly enough to generate a mushroom-cloud, it is sufficient for use in a so-called "dirty bomb," according to agency spokesman Victor Dricks. And to show that the NRC isn't fooling around, that fine will run ISU a tidy $8,500. Wait, that's it?
A February 7th inspection revealed a pair of violations, "the failure to control and maintain surveillance of licensed radioactive material; and the failure to provide accurate and complete information to the NRC in its inventory records," per the NRC announcement. The $8,500 levy comes in response to the first infraction only, since the university " took prompt corrective actions after the violations were identified." The missing sample, however, has yet to be recovered.
"The NRC has very rigorous controls for the use and storage of radioactive materials as evidenced by this enforcement action," Dr. Cornelis Van der Schyf, vice president for research at the university, told the Associated Press. He blamed shoddy bookkeeping from a decade and a half ago as the primary culprit.
"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." Well, that's a relief.