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‘Absolutely unacceptable’ error in shipment of nuclear materials prompts probe

Los Alamos National Laboratory is facing a new federal investigation for shipping nuclear materials out of state by aircraft, in violation of federal law, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which called the error absolutely unacceptable. The agency released a statement Friday, saying the lab had mislabeled shipments of special nuclear materials a term used for radioactive, weapons-grade plutonium and uranium that were headed last week to the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The shipments were packaged for ground cargo transportation, but instead were shipped by air, which is a mode of transportation not authorized by Federal regulations, according to the statement.

Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, referred questions to the National Nuclear Security Administration. The incident follows similar violations at the lab this spring involving mislabeled chemicals and hazardous waste, including nuclear materials. It also comes as the lab has faced a fresh wave of scrutiny from federal officials over whether it is capable of handling increasing quantities of plutonium as the nation ramps up its production of plutonium pits the grapefruit-sized cores that trigger nuclear bombs over the next 15 years at a Los Alamos facility. The protocols for shipping sensitive nuclear materials by air are significantly different than those for ground shipments. More sensitive climate and pressure controls must be in place to transport plutonium by air, and special external controls are required to guard against an accident during flight or a radiation release, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The National Nuclear Security Administration said the incident didn t lead to any loss of radioactive materials or contamination. The agency said it will investigate to determine the root cause of this incident, as well as procedures to avoid future incidents of this type, and said it intends to hold the responsible parties accountable under the full terms of the lab s management contract, currently held by Los Alamos National Security LLC, a consortium led by the University of California, Bechtel and other corporations. The contract is currently up for bid, a decision made by the federal government following a series of management and safety issues. The lab is expected to be under new management in 2018.

But significant safety lapses continue. In April, work was paused at the lab s plutonium facility after a worker handled an unlabeled waste container that ignited, causing a small fire that gave one worker second-degree burns. In May, the lab failed to accurately document the pH levels of liquid hazardous waste shipped in drums to Colorado the second time such an incident had occurred in six months. The waste was far more acidic than documented on its labels, which means it was likely more volatile. Those incidents triggered reviews of workplace and emergency protocols. The lab also informed the New Mexico Environment Department this spring that it had been storing two drums containing nitrate salts in a special containment area for months, believing they were part of a volatile waste stream, only to learn the canisters were not dangerous.

These drums highlight one of the most notorious mispackaging mistakes in the lab s recent history. A nitrate salt drum containing items laced with radioactive waste was packed with the wrong type of absorbent kitty litter at Los Alamos, causing a chemical reaction that led the drum to burst in the salt caverns of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad in February 2014. The event led to a low-level radiological release and shut down the underground nuclear waste facility for nearly three years, at a cost of over $1 billion. At a hearing in Santa Fe earlier this month, federal officials raised questions about how the lab would deal with unprecedented levels of plutonium, in order to build as many as 80 pits per year by 2030 as part of the nation s goals of modernizing its nuclear weapons stockpile.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which advises the Department of Energy and the president, asked federal and lab officials about a lack of foresight as the program moves forward, as well as aging infrastructure at the lab. Questions also were raised about the lab consistently failing to meet expectations in its nuclear criticality safety program which is meant to ensure serious nuclear accidents don t occur and potentially cause a widespread release of radiation. Los Alamos was the only national laboratory in the country to fail its review for nuclear criticality safety in 2016. Additional scrutiny of the lab has come as the result of an investigative series by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, which examined a legacy of problems at Los Alamos plutonium facility. The reporting, published earlier this week in The New Mexican, highlighted safety incidents that have led to near misses of serious radiological events. The lapses led to an exodus of talented nuclear engineers.

The series also highlighted the lab s failure to produce or test working plutonium pits. Following publication of the report, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., questioned U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry at a Senate appropriations hearing about the safety of Los Alamos plutonium operations. He asked for assurances that safety would be a higher priority as the lab comes under new management next year. The Associated Press obtained a memo from Los Alamos officials that circulated internally, referring to a false narrative about the lab s operations and saying workers should be proud of your laboratory s accomplishments over the past decade to strengthen our ability to operate safely and securely.

The memo was circulated even as the new safety violations were discovered.

This failure to follow established procedures is absolutely unacceptable, National Nuclear Security Administrator Frank Klotz said in a statement Friday in response to the improper air shipment of nuclear materials.

I require the contractors who manage and operate our national laboratories and production plants to rigorously adhere to the highest safety and security standards in performing the vitally important work they do for our national security, he said.

During a conference call in May with members of the media, Klotz said a report is being prepared to examine the Los Alamos lab s ability to manage the nation s plutonium program and whether the work could be accomplished at other facilities as an alternative. That assessment is due later this summer.

Face of Defense: Veterinarian Reflects on Unconventional Career Journey

WASHINGTON, June 23, 2017 Just out of high school and unsure of what to do with his life, a young Ohio man went to a bus depot, handed a ticket agent almost all of the money in his pocket, and said with a smile, “I’ll go wherever this takes me.” So begins James “Nick” Koterski’s unconventional journey to becoming an Army colonel.

Landing in New Orleans, he spent the rest of his cash on a good meal. Shucking oysters nights and on weekends to earn money, he worked toward an undergraduate degree from the University of New Orleans, and eventually completed his doctorate of veterinarian medicine in 1989 from Louisiana State University.

Koterski worked in a regular clinical practice for a few years. “It wasn’t for me,” he said, so he found a food inspector position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A couple of years later, a colleague in the Army Reserve suggested that his adventurous nature would make him a good fit for the Army.

His first assignment sent him to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he primarily conducted food inspections for the commissary and exchange. He said what made the assignment really satisfying, though, was providing for the medical needs of all the working dogs for the Port Authority of New York and the Coast Guard.

When he was next stationed at Camp Hialeah, situated at the southern tip of South Korea, he continued his food inspection role for all Defense Department installations and vendors.

Continuing Education

Koterski returned to New Jersey after his stint in Korea and earned a doctorate in microbiology from Rutgers University. Those credentials led him to join an exclusive group of medical research scientists, who account for about six percent of the 400 Army veterinarians.

Koterski joined DoD’s lead lab for medical biological defense research, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases[1] at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The institute’s core mission is to protect service members from biological threats, and so it investigates disease outbreaks and threats to public health, especially those that can be used as weapons.

One of his first expeditions with the institute involved working with local public health researchers at various Native American reservations in the “four corners” area — Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. He worked on a new test for plague, which naturally occurs in prairie dogs and other rodents in the area.

He had another memorable assignment with Inuit natives in Canada’s Northwest Territory on Great Slave Lake, sampling tissues of wildlife to find bacterium similar to anthrax, but not as highly lethal.

Koterski returned to Fort Detrick in 2005, this time with the U.S. Army Medical Materiel and Development Activity[2], to develop new drugs for biological defense threats not common enough for drug companies to invest in yet.

Monkey Pox

Koterski said one of his most challenging assignments, however, was the year he spent in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he helped collect blood samples from patients and charted the natural course of a rare disease called monkey pox, similar to smallpox.

In 2012, Koterski deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, as part of a forward assist science and technology team investigating products to enhance combat safety and medical efficiency. “It was interesting and rewarding,” he recalled.

He gathered direct input on a noise-cancelling stethoscope intended for use on medevac helicopters. “We also spent a lot of time talking to infantrymen finding out what did and didn’t work in pursuit of new items like ballistic and blast-resistant undergarments,” he said.

Since May 2015, Koterski has been the medical countermeasures director in DoD’s office of the assistant secretary for health affairs. He works closely with the departments of State, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, ensuring the national stockpile of countermeasure vaccines and drug treatments is maintained.

Koterski, who is retiring in the fall after 22 years of service, said no single role or assignment stands out as his favorite. “You know, it really isn’t about what I did or where,” he said, “it’s about appreciating each and every person I’ve had the great fortune to spend time with on the journey.”


  1. ^ U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (
  2. ^ U.S. Army Medical Materiel and Development Activity (

Stunned by shootings

By John Miller [email protected]

Damian Herrera was known in the small town of La Madera as a quiet, respectful young man. He played on the basketball team at Mesa Vista High School. He had gone on to attend classes at University of New Mexico-Taos, where he was pursuing a pre-science degree. He was seeing a girl who spoke highly of him and said that he was close with his friends and family. But there was another side to Herrera, a side of him that seems to contradict nearly every statement given by those who recalled the young man they grew up with – the same man who allegedly shot and killed three of his family members – including his mother, Maria “Brenda” Rosita Gallegos – and two strangers on Thursday (June 15). Dolores Archuleta-Lopez, 65, Gallegos’ cousin, said that people in La Madera “grew up in loving families.” She was unaware of Herrera ever getting into trouble. “We’re all in shock that this happened,” she said.

Her disbelief is shared by the residents of La Madera, who struggle to grasp that a shooting of such magnitude and brutality could take place so close to their homes. That incredulity seems to have lent itself to early speculation that seemed to oversimplify what may have truly been behind the shootings – that Herrera must have been a drug user or, according to an initial police investigation, that Herrera allegedly shot and killed five people because he became enraged during an argument over a family vehicle. But as Herrera’s sister, Carissa Herrera, 16, watched her brother allegedly shoot to death her stepfather, Max Trujillo Sr., 55; brother, Brendon Herrera, 20; and mother, Gallegos, 49, at her family’s home Thursday afternoon, she said Damian Herrera turned to her with a blank stare on his face that she didn’t recognize. “That wasn’t my brother,” Carissa Herrera wrote in a post on her Facebook page four days after the shootings. The suspect could be seen wearing the same emotionless expression on his face as he appeared on a taped arraignment in R o Arriba Magistrate Court on Friday (June 16) after he was arrested Thursday night.

Stunned By Shootings

In an interview with Albuquerque-based KRQE-TV earlier this week, Carissa Herrera and her sister, Candice, said that he had been struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness for about two years. They said that “he would hear things” and that on the day of the violent shootings, he was scheduled for an “appointment.”

But they said Damian Herrera never actually went, as he “was scared.”

Police still don’t know for certain where the 21-year-old suspect actually traveled Thursday morning in a family truck he had taken without permission. The violent incident that transpired when he returned to his family’s home in the gray Toyota pickup, however, has been recorded in police reports in grisly detail. Carissa Herrera was inside the residence Thursday afternoon when she heard Damian Herrera and her stepfather arguing in the front yard over the pickup the suspect had taken. “Three to four gunshots” then rang out, according to her statements to police. She left the residence with her brother, Brendon Herrera, and her mother to discover Trujillo lying on the ground with gunshot wounds to his chest. Damian Herrera allegedly stood over the body with a black, short-barreled revolver. Carissa Herrera ran back inside to call 911 as Brendon Herrera attempted to wrestle the weapon from his brother. The suspect then allegedly shot Brendon Herrera in the neck. Gallegos rushed to her son’s side as he died of the injury. Damian Herrera then allegedly pointed the gun at his mother as she knelt on the ground, pleading with him not to shoot her as well. He then allegedly shot her in the head.

When police and emergency personnel arrived on the scene around 3:15 p.m., Brendon Herrera and Trujillo were pronounced dead where they lay. Gallegos would die of her injuries the next day.

Stunned By Shootings

What happened next is unclear. Following his arrest later Thursday night, Damian Herrera stated in an interview with police that he then hitched a ride with a fourth victim, Michael Kyte, 61, of Tres Piedras. Kyte’s wife returned home Thursday evening to find her husband with bullet holes in his chest, allegedly inflicted by the suspect before he stole Kyte’s Chevrolet Silverado. Kyte would also be pronounced dead when Taos County Emergency Services personnel arrived on the scene minutes later. It took police a few days to discover the location of the Toyota truck Damian Herrera had driven from the first crime scene in La Madera, which was discovered in the Tres Piedras area this week.

After allegedly shooting Kyte and stealing his vehicle, Damian Herrera then fled north along State Road 285, wending his way west through Antonito, Colorado, before turning south along State Road 84. It is also unclear whether the suspect stopped in Colorado or why he chose the route. An official at the Conejos County Sheriff’s Office said Monday (June 19) that his office was not looking into the incident. But R o Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan, 56, speculated that Herrera may have taken the roundabout route to throw police off his trail. Fleeing south, Damian Herrera stopped for gas at Bode’s General Store in Abiqui , southwest of La Madera. His fifth victim, Manuel Serrano, 59, a security officer at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, was filling up at a pump across from him. Security cameras captured the moment when the suspect finished filling his truck and Serrano then began running frantically around his vehicle. It is during these moments that police believe Herrera fatally shot Serrano.

Damian Herrera then drove the stolen truck south along State Road 84. Police caught up to him traveling at a “high rate of speed” near mile marker 202. Officials said Herrera was traveling so fast that he nearly crashed into a police vehicle traveling in the opposite lane. The suspect overcorrected, hitting a tree on the right-hand shoulder of the roadway. Herrera left the vehicle and “ran” at sheriff’s deputies, a “large” kitchen knife visible on his side, according to police reports. Herrera attempted to take one of the officer’s service weapons, which discharged during what police have described as a “scuffle.” The round fired injured no one. A deputy standing by subdued Herrera with a Taser.

Damian Herrera was arrested around 8:30 p.m. and incarcerated in R o Arriba County Thursday night. Shortly after his arrest, police say he admitted to shooting and killing all five victims.

Stunned By Shootings

He was initially charged with four counts of first-degree murder Friday morning, along with other charges stemming from the alleged crimes. When his mother, who had been kept on life support, died of her injuries Friday evening, a fifth count of murder was added. The suspect has been assigned a public attorney, who will provide defense counsel as the case moves through the court system.

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