Nuclear Arms Plants' Security Lax, Report Says
Mock 'Commandos' Were Able to Beat Safeguards at U.S. Facilities About Half of the Time
By Eric Pianin and Bill Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 23, 2002; Page A15
Terrorist commandos could gain access to weapons-grade nuclear material and rapidly construct and detonate nuclear weapons because of grossly inadequate security at many of the nation's nuclear weapons research facilities, a Democratic member of the House has warned in a letter to the Energy Department.
The letter from Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) is based on internal Energy Department documents and a 2001 study by a watchdog group that shows that federal agents posing as "commandos" in mock exercises were able to breach security at nuclear laboratories more than half the time.
For example, in a test at the Rocky Flats nuclear production facility in Denver, Navy SEALs successfully "stole" enough material to make several nuclear weapons. And in a test at the Los Alamos facility near Santa Fe, the "terrorists" had enough time to construct an improvised nuclear device.
In most cases, officials at the facilities were notified well in advance of the mock attacks and yet security forces were unable to thwart many of the assaults.
Critics of security precautions say terrorists also could use the nuclear material to fashion "dirty bombs," conventional explosives used to spread radioactive contamination over a wide area.
"Experts have told me that a group of suicidal terrorists could, once inside the facility, quickly build and detonate a dirty bomb or a homemade nuclear bomb capable of achieving explosive critical yield," Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said yesterday. "DOE has been ignoring expert critical reports on security of its facilities for decades, and as a result we are all at risk."
Markey's criticisms were based on a study last year by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a watchdog group that unearthed government documents highlighting security problems at 10 major nuclear weapons complexes. He also cited research by his own staff. Dozens of government studies have pointed to similar problems.
John A. Gordon, an undersecretary of energy and the administrator of the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, said the POGO report raised serious concerns but that "much of it is old data."
"The idea that a terrorist could get particularly close to a weapons site is a bit far-fetched" because security forces are adequate and well-trained, said Gordon, a retired Air Force general. He said the success of intruders in the drills does not mean the facilities are easy targets, because the exercises are designed to test the limits of security measures, which are then upgraded.
Gordon said security precautions are strong at the sites and along the network used to transport nuclear materials, and the precautions are continually reviewed. "It's something we take very seriously," he said.
Markey's 23-page letter, which he is scheduled to release today at a news conference, cites numerous security problems in the storage and transportation of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium at four of the 10 major nuclear facilities: Lawrence Livermore, in California's San Francisco Bay Area; Los Alamos in New Mexico; Rocky Flats; and Oak Ridge, near Knoxville, Tenn. Markey and Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), among others, are pressing for legislation to require federal guards at all nuclear weapons labs and nuclear power plants.
The U.S. nuclear weapons facilities managed by the Energy Department hold weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium in sufficient quantities to create nuclear devices. Many are near major metropolitan areas.
Some of the facilities, built for the Manhattan Project, which created the first nuclear weapons in the 1940s, are in poor physical shape, which adds to the security problems.
DOE routinely tests the sites' security by conducting simulated and mock "force-on-force" exercises, often using military personnel to play the part of adversaries. The government requires that security forces at these sites be able to defend against theft of nuclear materials or radiological sabotage by a few terrorists using surprise, readily available weapons and explosives. The facilities must also guard against theft of nuclear secrets.
According to the POGO study, however, mock terrorists, during a drill at Los Alamos in October 2000, gained control of nuclear materials that, if detonated, would have endangered significant parts of New Mexico, Colorado and downwind areas. In an earlier test at the same location, an Army Special Forces team was able to "steal" enough weapons-grade uranium for numerous nuclear weapons and was able to carry the extremely heavy material with the use of a Home Depot garden cart.
Markey, POGO officials and numerous government whistle-blowers complain that Energy Department officials have long played down or ignored security problems at these facilities. They say the Sept. 11 attacks, which involved sophisticated plots, should be a wake-up call for the government.
Markey's letter notes that the security guidelines for the nuclear weapons research facilities do not address the possibility of suicide attacks by large numbers of terrorists with sophisticated knowledge of the laboratories and help from the inside.
"Our concern is there is a complete disconnect between the real-world vulnerabilities that exist at these sites and the Department of Energy's response," said Danielle Brian, executive director of POGO.
Mark Graf, a security official at Rocky Flats who temporarily lost his job after complaining about conditions, said yesterday that "DOE has failed to address these issues and retaliated against people who have raised them.
"My greatest concern is of the improvised nuclear device," he said. "Imagine, if you will, a small nuclear explosion surrounded by tons of nuclear material and waste."
Ronald E. Timm, president of a Chicago-based security firm that held a DOE contract to analyze security safeguards, said yesterday that his reviews found serious deficiencies at Rocky Flats and Los Alamos as well as vulnerabilities in the way nuclear materials were transported to the facilities.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company