Photo via ec.europa.eu
It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. And this small government agency—one that few people have ever heard of—called the National Nuclear Security Administration has been doing it for 9 years now. It's charged with the task of tracking down castoff radioactive materials like plutonium that could pose as a threat to public health. Or worse. The Administration says that if nuclear materials were to fall into the wrong hands, they could be used by terrorists to make dirty bombs. A Nuclear Recovery Operation
The agency was established in 2000, and has largely avoided publicity since its inception. It has only 1,500 employees. And for the first time, they allowed reporters from the LA Times to tag along on one of their missions to recover plutonium. Here's how the mission went down (from the Times):
The four-man government disposal team arrived Monday from Los Alamos, N.M., to take away the small canister of plutonium. Weighing just 1.3 grams, the plutonium-238 isotope had been owned by a Silicon Valley company for nearly 30 years and was stored safely in a 10-foot hole in the ground.
Seems like a simple enough situation, right? Where's the intrigue, the danger?
"In the wrong hands, federal officials say, the highly radioactive isotope could pose a serious threat to public safety and conceivably provide terrorists with material for a dirty bomb."
Oh. There it is. The agency deals with locating and recovering all kinds of nuclear waste and material—stuff that comes from "hospitals, oil fields, manufacturing and research centers" across the nation. And while most of the waste isn't likely to make it into a bomb anytime soon, unrecovered nuclear materials can of course cause dire health problems:
The isotope removed Monday is less dangerous than plutonium-239, which can be used in nuclear bombs, and emits a less potent radiation that can easily be shielded. But it is highly hazardous if inhaled or ingested.
In this case, the team pulled the plutonium up by a rope, identified its origin, and stored it away in a barrel lined with metal and plastic shielding. The whole operation took a couple minutes.
Small Agency, Massive Operations
It works in 130 countries to gather radioactive stuff internationally, and it's got its hands full: the agency has gathered over 20,600 dangerous sources of radiation in the United States alone. And as is the case with so many government agencies, it's understaffed and underfunded:
The agency is barely able to stay even. Between 2,500 and 3,000 radiological sources are registered each year as unwanted. Last year, the agency's teams recovered 3,153, the largest number yet.
It has a backlog of 8,800 known items. Some officials estimate that there may be tens of thousands of other radioactive sources that the agency has not identified."
Scary. But it's less scary knowing that there is indeed an organization that's at least making an effort to account for it all.
Read the full account of the plutonium removal operation over at the LA Times.