WASHINGTON – A federal audit has found that hundreds of non-nuclear explosive devices are untested or unaccounted for due to poor record keeping at New Mexico's Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories.
The Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General, who examined the labs' inventory and testing of explosives between April 2005 and March, announced Wednesday that the problems increase the risk that rockets, gun rounds and other items could be stolen or injure workers.
For example, Sandia officials could not account for at least 410 items, including detonators, rocket motors, shaped explosives and bulk explosive powders.
And both labs — which regularly use explosives for defense research — have far more explosives than they need. But they have failed to regularly test the safety and stability of most of the items.
"Without improvements in this critical area, there is increased risk that worker safety may be compromised and that extremely dangerous and potentially destructive materials may be subject to theft or diversion," auditors wrote.
Officials said they already are working to fix the problems by updating guidelines and software and improving inventory and management practices.
But they disagreed that the explosives were at risk for theft.
Sandia spokesman Michael Padilla said lab officials always knew where the items were. The problem was that employees weren't always recording the location.
"We are on Kirtland Air Force Base. Security is very high," Padilla said. "Anyone who is using the material has to have the right or need to use the material."
Auditors said Sandia didn't adequately inventory its explosives when they were being used at locations not on lab property, like military sites and universities. The Albuquerque-based lab frequently could not find or track several items.
In one example, auditors found almost 190,000 pounds of explosive propellant contained in 39 rocket motors owned by Sandia that were stored at a federal facility but not listed in the lab's inventory system.
"Had a theft occurred at one of the nonfederal, offsite locations included in our review, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to accurately identify the type and extent of stolen department materials," auditors wrote.
At Los Alamos lab, auditors found that officials were storing old, dated explosives, including 63 anti-personnel rockets that were acquired by the lab in 1986. The rockets contained enough propellant to burn for a maximum range of 6,500 yards.
Auditors said that one Los Alamos official said the material was "almost like gold" and kept it even though it was last tested 10 years earlier and there were no plans to use it.
Auditors said lab officials should have limited the number explosives to what was needed for research and that federal officials should have caught the problems long ago.
They said California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory did not have the same inventory concerns, and it should be an example for the New Mexico labs.
Los Alamos spokeswoman Kathy DeLucas said lab employees have always followed DOE guidelines, but they will work to enhance safety measures.
"We agree it's important to maintain a minimum amount [of explosives] and reduce the excess material," she said. "But some of these materials are unique and difficult to purchase."
Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization, said the audit confirms stories New Mexicans have told about lab employees' relaxed attitude toward explosives.
"This is not so good. There is a lot of material, and it's diverse," Mello said. "It only takes a tiny bit of high explosives to cause a terrible tragedy."