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Nuclear material doled out 'like it was candy' 50 years ago

| Sunday, June 11, 2017, 1:51 a.m.
Robert Alvarez

Maybe the only way to know the whereabouts of 200 pounds of bomb-grade uranium allegedly missing from an Apollo processing plant since the 1960s is to dig up the skeletons in the backyard — a 50-year-old nuclear waste dump.

The Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. (NUMEC) of Apollo came up short on highly enriched uranium in 1965, essentially bomb-grade nuclear material for a nuclear-fueled rocket intended to fly to Mars.

The company and its officers were suspected by some of diverting the uranium to Israel for its secret bomb program, but there was no hard evidence and numerous government investigations over the decades came up empty — no indictments, no charges and no definitive information on where the material could be.

To really know what happened to the highly enriched uranium, a mass balance — a calculation of what went in and what went out of the plant — has to be done, said Robert Alvarez, a project director and associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Department of Energy.

And a mass balance can't be done until the Army Corps of Engineers is done digging up, identifying and shipping out up to 100,000 tons of nuclear waste at NUMEC's dump in Parks Township — a job that will take at least a decade.

“That's the only way,” Alvarez said. “Someone with proper clearances, when the burial ground is exhumed, will know.”

Alvarez doesn't subscribe to the diversion theory. When he worked at the DOE and received CIA assessments, he said, “You can't get enamored with the information. You've got to realize intelligence isn't necessarily the truth. It's an art form.”

As world leaders try to decrease the world's stockpile of highly enriched uranium — atomic bomb material — NUMEC stands as the first major investigation into the possible trade of bomb material.

It remains one of the most famous nuclear mysteries 50 years later.

“Imagine sending out many tons of (highly enriched uranium) to countries around the world for 10 years,” Alvarez said. “We would never do that today.”

But the United States did, sending tons of the stuff around the world during the 1960s and 1970s under a program started by President Dwight Eisenhower called “Atoms for Peace.”

“There was a great effort by (the Atomic Energy Commission) to commercialize nuclear energy and they were doing everything to attract private business to get contracts.

“They were doling out tons of fissile materials like it was candy,” he said.

Private companies such as NUMEC fabricated and sold nuclear fuel for nuclear reactors and other applications.

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy's National Security Administration conducts nuclear material accounting, “but they have not paid much attention to places like (NUMEC),” Alvarez said.

“Where (highly enriched uranium) went is important these days,” he said. “This is a material that fuels some of the world's most destructive weapons. We need to keep track of this stuff as much we can.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 724-226-4691, mthomas@tribweb.com or via twitter @MaThomas_Trib.

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