Thefts raise security concerns at Los Alamos lab

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A series of tool thefts has occurred from the largest nuclear waste disposal zone at Los Alamos National Laboratory, raising concerns about security and the lack of public notice about the crimes.

Lab workers told police the thefts occurred last summer from Technical Area 54 — a "hot zone" where tools could be contaminated.

The lab did not answer questions about the theft but said in a statement Tuesday that officials were confident the tools were not contaminated but could not verify that without actual testing and sampling, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported (http://bit.ly/1vZb78v).

No contamination was found during a radiological survey of sections of the area where some of the missing tools had been, the lab said.

The tools likely pose little health risk but could be dangerous if they had been exposed to toxic chemicals present in the area where the tools had been used, said George Anastas of Albuquerque, a radiation and nuclear-safety expert.

Police reports obtained by the newspaper say impact wrenches, weed trimmers and other tools were reported stolen between May and August and remained missing.

Police say they were forced to close the case because the lab refused to give investigators the names of workers who had access to the area.

"If they choose not to give us information, it makes it hard for us to investigate," Los Alamos police Cmdr. Preston Ballew said.

News of the thefts came as the lab is under scrutiny for its handling of radioactive materials left from decades of atomic weapons research. A drum of waste from Los Alamos burst earlier this year at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, contaminating workers and forcing the underground repository's indefinite closure.

The lab's security practices have come under fire from federal evaluators over the years. A stolen thumb drive containing lab data that was recovered during a drug raid in 2006 generated embarrassing headlines, and the U.S. Department of Energy inspector general launched an investigation into missing tools at the lab in 2007.

Ballew said missing tools and equipment are reported to his department often, even though the limited flow of information to outside investigators seldom leads to arrests or recovery of stolen items. He said this is the first time in his 10 years with the force that he recalls the lab reporting the theft of equipment potentially contaminated with radioactive material.

Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization, said contaminated tools could pose a health hazard to anyone who has direct contact with them. But more than that, he's concerned about what the police reports reveal about the culture at the lab.

"I think the laboratory should cooperate fully with the police," Mello said. "Failure to do so upholds a culture that says laws from outside the lab don't apply."

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