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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.

Maury Wills honored by RedHawks as his museum will close after this season

Each item had a story attached for the former Los Angeles Dodgers great. Wills pointed out the banjo he got during his playing days from the co-pilot of the Dodgers team plane. The Most Valuable Player trophy he won at one of the 1962 All-Star games, playing for the National League in his hometown. That brought back memories of when the security guard wouldn’t allow Wills into the stadium prior to the game in Washington, D.C. The guard didn’t think Wills was big enough to be a baseball player.

“Knowing that it’s been here at Newman Outdoor Field in Fargo, I always felt that I had a treasure somewhere stashed away,” Wills said. That treasure will be getting moved closer to home. The Maury Wills Museum, which opened in 2001, is closing down after this season. Wills was honored at Friday’s American Association game between the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks and Gary SouthShore RailCats, throwing out a ceremonial first pitch. Gary earned a 6-2 victory before an announced crowd of 3,792 fans.

“I’ll will always feel connected with Fargo, North Dakota,” said Wills, who lives in Sedona, Ariz.

The 84-year-old Wills has been associated with the RedHawks since before the 1997 season, serving as a coach and radio commentator for the team.

“Fargo reached out with open arms and just loved Maury,” said Carla Wills, Maury’s wife. This series with Gary is officially Maury’s last three games with the RedHawks as a broadcaster. Wills said it’s bittersweet to see his museum close in Fargo because “this is like home for me.”

“We’ll make a nice home for it somewhere closer to the Los Angeles Dodgers,” Carla said of the items from the museum. In recent years, Maury was a part-time commentator on radio broadcasts. In 1998, he started in the radio booth with Jack Michaels in closer to a full-time role. He is also known for his Maury Wills Knothole Gang youth baseball camps.

“He’s really taken this as a second home,” said Brad Thom, president and chief executive officer for the RedHawks. “He’s grown a connection.”

Maury thanked the Thoms, including team chairman Bruce Thom, the RedHawks and the Fargo area and region for making him feel welcomed for two decades.

“The relationships that I’ve had with all those factions have been wonderful,” Maury said. Wills was recently honored in the 2017 “Hall of Game” class for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum along with Lee Smith, Al Oliver and Tony Perez. Carla said Maury is in good health with lots of energy and still enjoys golfing. However, she added travel puts some wear on him. That is part of the reason for relocating the items from his museum at Newman.

Maury said he’s been sober for 27 years and his two-decade association with Fargo and the RedHawks has helped him stay clean.

“That’s very meaningful to me,” he said. “I came here years ago when I thought I was at the end of my blessings. … I was able to turn my life around and it’s wonderful today. It has been for a long time.”

Maury was a seven-time Major League Baseball All-Star and a three-time World Series champion. He was the National League MVP in 1962, stealing a then-record 104 bases. He played 14 seasons in the Major Leagues primarily with the Dodgers.

“He’s amazing,” Carla said.

Symantec Takes Stand Against Russian Source Code Review

Cyber security software vendor Symantec today emerged as the only known western technology company to publicly refuse Russian government access to source code for its security products. IBM, Cisco, Germany’s SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and McAfee are among the firms that allowed Russia to conduct source code reviews of products, including firewalls, anti-virus applications and other encrypted software, according to a new investigative report[1] from Reuters. The reviews intended to protect Russia against cyber espionage are conducted by the country s Federal Service for Technical and Export Control (FSTEC), and the Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the KGB and the agency blamed for attacking the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

Such code reviews are aimed at protecting the country from cyber espionage.

But those inspections also provide the Russians an opportunity to find vulnerabilities in the products source code, Reuters reported, citing current and former U.S. officials and security experts. As IT services providers sell and employ increasingly sophisticated solutions to combat an expanding array of cyber security threats, this report suggests those efforts could be at-least somewhat undermined by software vendors desire to cash in on substantial revenue opportunities in Russia. The Russian IT market is projected to be worth $18.4 billion in 2017.

In a stark rebellion, Symantec officials said that company has refused to submit to the reviews and acknowledged they re prepared to absorb the impact to their top line.

In the case of Russia, we decided the protection of our customer base through the deployment of uncompromised security products was more important than pursuing an increase in market share in Russia, spokeswoman Kirsten Batch is quoted as saying. Code inspections are performed by independent software firms, some with ties to Russian military intelligence or defense agencies, the investigation found. One such company, Echelon, is used by IBM.

But Symantec officials decided the lab “didn’t meet our bar” for independence. The company refused to allow the review, thus disqualifying it from selling business products in Russia.

It poses a risk to the integrity of our products that we are not willing to accept, Batch, the Symantec spokeswoman, told Reuters. There s discrepancy about where the source code reviews are conducted, with the tech companies saying they conduct the reviews in safe rooms at their own facilities, where nothing can be copied or exfiltrated.

But in at least one case that of IBM, the FSTEC posted documents claiming the testing was done at a firm located 20 miles outside of Moscow.

The article noted there is no evidence that the software code reviews have resulted in an actual hack and that other nations including China and the U.S. also conduct source code inspections for some products.

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References

  1. ^ investigative report (www.reuters.com)
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