Copper thieves target federal sites

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Crime: Thousands of pounds of copper disappears from LANL

By Carol A. Clark

A worldwide shortage has sparked copper thieves to steal wiring from anywhere they can find it including local telephone poles. Reports also indicate that about 30,000 pounds of copper was been stolen from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Copper thefts at LANL actually have involved a few pounds up to a few hundred pounds from salvage, spokesman Kevin Roark said this morning.

“We are looking in to this but our initial estimates indicate the actual number to be significantly less than the 30,000 pounds,” Roark said. “We have not experienced any significant copper theft since 2009 … There were a couple of incidents in 2006 and 2007 … all allegations were referred to local and federal law enforcement at the time.”

Within the last six month thieves have stolen copper wiring from telephone poles between LANL and Bandelier, said Los Alamos Police Capt. Randy Foster.

“Thieves also have removed copper wiring from telephone poles in Rendija Canyon recently,” Foster said, adding that thieves in Albuquerque are climbing onto residential rooftops to steal the copper wiring from air conditioning units.

The average new single-family home requires nearly 450 pounds of copper, according to the International Copper Study Group (ICSG). Producers are having trouble keeping up with the demand for copper, which ranks third in the world consumption of metals after iron and aluminum, according to ICSG. Refined copper consumption was 18.8 million tons in 2010, up from 16.7 million tons in 2005.

The price of copper ranged from $4.29 to $4.40 during the past week and forecasters, including the financial firm Goldman Sachs, say demand could rise fast enough to take the price to $5 a pound sometime between now and 2013.

With copper so scarce and prices at a near record, federal officials say thieves are targeting power substations and even a locked recycling yard at a nuclear lab. The energy department’s inspector general reports a “troubling increase” in copper thefts from federal sites, including national research laboratories, generating stations and a plant where nuclear weapons are dismantled and stored, according to the Associated Press.

In Texas, hundreds of pounds of copper were stolen from the Pantex plant near Amarillo, where nuclear weapons are stored and dismantled.

Inspector General Gregory Friedman urged DOE officials to improve security, especially at recycling facilities and remote substations.

The rise in copper prices is due partly to China’s explosive economic growth, as that country snaps up the metal to use in construction, industry and consumer products.

For the first nine months of 2010, demand for refined copper worldwide exceeded supply by about 480,000 tons, according to ICS. In 2011, projections are for a global mine production increase of 5 percent. Copper stockpiles, globally, have dropped from about 1.1 million tons on the London Metal Exchange in 2001 to 551,000 tons in early 2010 to about 412,000 tons by the end of September 2010.