IEER on Missing Plutonium

The Insitute for Energy and Environmental Research released a report on 29 November 2005 (written by two scientists, Brice Smith and Arjun Makhijani), detailing the amount of weapons-grade plutoinum that is in the soil or being stored as waste at Los Alamos.

It contained this startling claim:

There are major discrepancies in the materials accounts for weapons plutonium in Los Alamos Waste. An analysis of official data indicates that the unaccounted for plutonium amounts to at least 300 kilograms [emphasis mine] and could be over 1,000 kilograms, though the higher figure appears unlikely.

FYI, 300kg of separated weapons-grade plutonium is probably enough for about 50 Nagasaki type bombs (6kg a piece)—or enough to travel back in time (below). How useable the unaccounted plutoinum is “out-of-the-box” is unclear. Plutonium being disposed can be mixed with various other substances or embedded in ceramic or glass. Anyone wanting to use the plutonium in a bomb would need to separate it.

Marty, you’re not thinking fourth dimensionally!

As Brice and Arjun note, the fact that there are discrepencies is not new. In 1996, a memo, written by Admiral Richard Guimond, then Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management, and Everet Beckner, then Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs, was circulated at DOE asking various site to reanalyze their plutonium accounting files to find the source of the mismatch. A task force was set up, but never reported its findings, at least publicly.

Enter IEER, using public data on the composition and radioactivity of waste piles at various DOE sites, Brice and Arjun have estimated the amount of plutonium that is actually in the waste piles. There is not enough byproducts of plutonium in the piles nor is there enough radioactivity to account for all the plutonium. This implies that some plutonium is missing.

You may be worried that freedom-hatin’ terrorists may get their hands on the material. However, The Onion, again always so timely, says their hands are full (nods to Ben Rusek for the link).


  1. BE6-II

    Could the stuff have been used for RTG power supplies in “classified national security missions”? (

    On an unrelated side note, what are the electricity cost deep under the ocean, say, right next to a copper or fiber optic communication cable? If I were to park my personal rescue sub there, on my way to work, hop out and plug a computer into the nearest wall socket. Preferably a powerful one that can search through vast quantities of data looking for keywords. (Like paracell`s bioinformatics products) What should I expect to pay for that? And if I get bored doing underwater bioinformatics, how about placing loads of passive sonar sensors or communication systems… you know to study marine wildlife.

    Back on topic, plutonium accounting has gone wrong before ( , so who knows.

  2. John Fleck (History)

    It’s worth noting the government’s explanation, which it has been making for a while on this issue, which is that IEER is citing two very different accounting systems which collect data differently for different purposes, and therefore come up with different results. It’s still worth understanding the discrepancies, but understanding the differences between accounting systems is a very different issue than tracking down “missing plutonium”.

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