Committee sends letter requesting more info on “plutonium incident”

Washington, D.C. – The Research and Technology Subcommittee today held a hearing to examine the administration’s proposed fiscal year 2017 (FY17) budget request for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST Director Willie May testified on the budget request, including the agency’s investment in cybersecurity and the NIST Cybersecurity Framework.

Research and Technology Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Comstock: “As you all know, one of the great challenges of the 21st Century is cybersecurity. Considering the constantly evolving cyber threats and technology, it is imperative that we do everything that we can to protect our citizens.  In order to ensure this, NIST plays a very important role by providing guidelines and standards to help reduce cyber risks to federal agencies and critical infrastructure.”

Dr. May also fielded several questions from Republican Members about ongoing problems at the agency that have come to light after a meth lab explosion last summer on the NIST campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland. 

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas): “It is surprising that a federal agency didn’t know that a meth lab was being run on its property, and without an explosion, it might have never been discovered. The meth lab explosion and subsequent investigation have raised serious concerns about the safety and security of the entire NIST campus. Information obtained during this Committee’s investigation of the meth lab at NIST appears to show a culture of waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct at NIST Police Services. It also appears that police equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars is unaccounted for or missing from the police force. These unfortunate examples undermine NIST’s mission to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness, which enhances economic security and improves our quality of life.”

Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) asked Dr. May about a “plutonium incident,” cited by NIST employees. In the aftermath of the meth lab explosion, NIST Chief of Staff Kevin Kimball wrote in an email obtained by the Committee: 

“Can’t see how this rises to an audit risk.  Don’t remember briefing the auditors after the plutonium and that was 1000 times more of a risk.”  

Additionally, in the same e-mail chain, George Jenkins, the Chief Financial Officer at NIST appears to be complicit in misleading auditors.  Mr. Jenkins wrote:

“They are getting updates on this via news reports and to them they do not know the magnitude of the issue…”  

Dr. May responded to Rep. Loudermilk’s question only mentioning a plutonium incident that occurred at the Boulder, Colorado campus in 2008. But information obtained by the Science Committee suggests there has been a more recent incident involving the mishandling of plutonium at the Maryland campus.

In a report issued in June 2015, a notice of violation issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)  stated that “for a period of time estimated to begin in the 1980’s until October 2014, NIST failed to keep records showing the receipt, inventory (including location and unique identity), acquisition, transfer, and disposal of all special nuclear material in its possession.”

After the hearing, Reps. Smith and Loudermilk sent a follow-up letter to NIST stating, “If this information is accurate, it raises serious questions about the plutonium incident and whether NIST officials appropriately responded to the situation.  It also further raises concerns about NIST officials being less than forthcoming about wrongdoing occurring at the agency.”

To better understand the plutonium incident and NIST’s response, the chairmen request documents and information about the agency’s handling of plutonium and any incidents that may have gone unreported.

For more information on the hearing, including witness testimony and the archived webcast, please visit the Committee’s website.