Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said yesterday that his department has dramatically improved security and counterintelligence at nuclear weapons laboratories over nine months, investing heavily in counterintelligence and training more than 700 computer systems administrators in the latest cyber-security techniques.

"There's no mission that's more important to me than taking actions necessary to ensure that America's nuclear secrets are well guarded," Richardson said at a news conference, releasing three internal audits that claim steady gains in security.

Edward J. Curran, a top FBI counterintelligence official assigned to DOE since May 1998, added that the department's spending on counterintelligence has grown from less than $5 million in 1997 to $38.2 million in the current fiscal year--with a $45.2 million budget proposed for fiscal 2001.

"In my opinion, DOE's counterintelligence program is equal to all the other [counterintelligence] programs in the federal government--and exceeds most of them," Curran said.

Retired Air Force Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, who was named DOE security "czar" in June after Richardson consolidated all of the department's security functions, said it is now virtually impossible for employees to transfer nuclear secrets from classified to unclassified computer networks--as the Taiwanese American physicist Wen Ho Lee allegedly did at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

These buoyant assessments come almost a year after an investigation of alleged Chinese espionage at Los Alamos triggered intense concern in Washington over nuclear security.

In response, Congress last year created a semiautonomous agency at DOE to oversee the nation's nuclear weapons complex. It also placed a moratorium on all visits to the weapons laboratories by scientists from sensitive countries.

Richardson said he is committed to establishing the new National Nuclear Security Administration by March 1, as required by Congress. But he stressed that even with the naming of a new undersecretary to run the agency, he and his security team would retain ultimate responsibility for operations at the weapons laboratories.

Habiger said cyber-security was so lax a year ago that the weapons laboratories did not even have a uniform policy governing the use of computer passwords. Many employees used their last names or initials, and some simply typed "password" when logging onto classified networks, he said.

Now, Habiger added, "we have a password policy that I would put up against any in industry and academia."