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.