Security Concerns At US Department of Energy Nuclear Weapon Facilities
(Source : Project On Government Oversight ; dated January 2002)
  Editor's Note:
          We reproduce here documents pertaining to a controversy about the safety of nuclear weapons facilities operated by the US Department of Energy (DOE). These documents include:
         
          --a critical background paper by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO),
          --a critical letter by Congressman Edward J. Markey,
          --a rebuttal issued by DOE, and
          --a subsequent letter from POGO to DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration.
         
          More information and links (including to news stories) on this controversial subject are posted on POGO's website.
         
          This page will be updated as warranted.
Background Paper on Security Failures at DOE Nuclear Weapons Facilities         "
 The Department of Energy (DOE) stores and transports weapons-grade plutonium and highly-enriched uranium nationwide. DOE possesses enough material to make as many as 100,000 nuclear weapons.

DOE hires private entities such as Wackenhut Corporation and University of California to protect nuclear weapons facilities. Since 1992, the number of protective forces has decreased by 40%.

DOE conducts mock terrorist attacks to test security, often employing U.S. military forces to take on the role of “terrorists.” DOE identifies three terrorist threat scenarios to physical security:

-Theft of weapons-grade nuclear materials;
-Radiological sabotage by a suicidal terrorist most likely by a truck bomb or conventional explosives inside a facility dispersing tons of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium into the atmosphere; and
-Creation and explosion of a “home made”nuclear device.

Even though notified in advance when and where tests will occur, protective forces fail tests more than 50% of the time.

DOE managers have dumbed-down tests to make a passing grade, preventing “attackers” from using such commercially-available items as armor-piercing bullets and grenades. Navy SEALs refused to participate in exercises any longer because the tests were so unrealistic.

The following examples of security failures, by necessity, are not recent which allows them to be discussed in an unclassified forum:
-In a 1998 test at the Rocky Flats nuclear production facility, Navy SEALs successfully “stole” enough material to make multiple nuclear weapons.
-In an October 2000 test at a Los Alamos facility, the “terrorists” had enough time to construct and “detonate” a nuclear device.


Several key solutions could improve security problems at DOE:

-Under the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, close unneeded facilities and consolidate weapons-grade nuclear materials into fewer, more easily-defended underground locations;

-Immobilize excess nuclear materials so that they can no longer be used by terrorists;

-Take security oversight out of DOE so that an independent and more rigorous analysis can take place;

-Improve the effectiveness of DOE’s protective forces by increasing the size of the force and upgrading outdated training, weaponry, and security tactics; and
--In the short term, assign military units with SWAT capability to guard special nuclear materials inventories.

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) investigates, exposes, and seeks to remedy systemic abuses of power, mismanagement, and subservience by the federal government to powerful special interests. Founded in 1981, POGO is a politically-independent, nonprofit watchdog that strives to promote a government that is accountable to the citizenry. (ends)
Markey Slams Nuclear Weapons Lab Security
(Source : Office of Representative Markey via POGO ; issued Jan. 23, 2002)
   WASHINGTON, D.C.--- Today Representative Edward J. Markey (D-MA), a senior Member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and co-chair of the Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation, released a letter to Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Spencer Abraham regarding lax security at DOE nuclear weapons facilities such as Los Alamos National Laboratory, Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Center near Denver, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
         
          He also released a letter to Brent Scowcroft, who is currently preparing a report on security of DOE nuclear facilities for the Nuclear Command and Control Group at the National Security Counsel, asking that an unclassified version of the report also be prepared and publicly released.
         
          “Mock ‘terrorists’ were able to access the weapons grade uranium and plutonium in security tests (force-on-force exercises) at DOE facilities more than 50% of the time,” Rep. Markey stated. “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.”
         
          Ten DOE sites, some of which are located near urban areas such as Denver, Colorado and the Bay Area of California, contain enough weapons-grade plutonium (reportedly about 10 kg is required) and highly enriched uranium (reportedly about 50 kg is required) to build a crude nuclear bomb. In addition, the DOE Transportation Security Division regularly transports nuclear weapons materials on public highways from site to site. Recent press reports have detailed both Al Qaeda members’ attempts to obtain nuclear materials as well as their desire to attack U.S. nuclear facilities.
         
          Representative Markey’s letter to DOE questions issues related to numerous security problems at DOE facilities:
         
          --In more than 50% of force-on-force exercises conducted to assess the adequacy of security at DOE’s nuclear facilities, mock “terrorists” were reportedly able to penetrate the facility and gain access to plutonium or uranium. Had these been real attacks, suicidal terrorists might have been able to use the plutonium or uranium to quickly construct and detonate “dirty bombs” which could spread radioactive materials over a large area, or “homemade nuclear bombs” which could achieve the same explosive force as a small nuclear weapon.
         
          --Storage vaults and vault-type rooms used to store weapons grade uranium and plutonium, some of which are reportedly constructed out of drywall, may not be adequately protected against impacts from large commercial aircraft or the detonation of large truck bombs nearby. Vaults containing weapons-grade plutonium or uranium have been found left unlocked and open for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, at some DOE sites.
         
          --The Design Basis Threat, which are regulations that set security levels for DOE facilities, may not reflect the type of threat we now know to be realistic: It only requires that the facilities protect against a small group of attackers, it does not assume that the attackers may have access to sophisticated weaponry, including chemical and biological weapons, and it may not protect against very large truck bombs such as those that have been used in other terrorist attacks.
         
          --Rather than reward employees for bringing security flaws to the attention of their superiors, DOE has a long history of retaliating against such whistleblowers.
         
          --DOE management has been ignoring Presidential, General Accounting Office, Congressional, internal DOE, and independent expert critical reports on security of its facilities for decades. DOE continually fails to allocate sufficient resources to security, and continually fails to oversee security at its facilities to ensure that it is adequate. DOE personnel have been found to have improperly altered security ratings to make it look as though security was better than it was.
         
          “DOE has been ignoring expert critical reports on security of its facilities for decades, and as a result we are all at risk. This has never been acceptable, and it is even less so given the events of September 11,” said Rep. Markey. (ends)
 
DOE On Security at Nuclear Weapons Facilities
(Source : DOE National Nuclear Security Administration ; issued Jan. 23, 2002)
   WASHINGTON, DC --- Administrator John Gordon released the following statement regarding security at the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons facilities:
         
          As the Administrator of the NNSA, I am responsible to the Secretary of Energy and the American people for the security of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. I have assessed the security conditions at our sites many times and I personally reviewed our posture immediately following the terrorist attacks in September.
         
          Allegations that the Department of Energy has lax security at its nuclear weapons facilities are false and misleading. Charges that there is a fifty percent failure rate in our security tests are simply untrue.
         
          While we welcome serious inquiries into the Department's security practices, it is unfortunate that some try to create a climate of fear grossly disproportionate to the risks to the public. Such unfounded allegations are a disservice to the communities that are home to our national defense facilities.
         
          There is no question that DOE takes security seriously as a critical part of our mission. The strong group of professionals who protect our sites are a source of pride and it is grossly unfair to characterize individuals or the system as uncaring or ignoring problems. Other federal agencies look to the DOE's force as a model for effective practices, and in fact DOE regularly trains other federal security organizations.
         
          As is often the case in "reports" such as the one from POGO, the use of outdated data contributes to misleading conclusions. In the mid 1990s, when budgets were severely cut and security was progressively degraded, there was a higher level of risk. Now we aggressively protect our people, facilities, and material, and we display a formidable security posture to potential attackers. Our forces are well-trained and well-equipped. They are tested by outside challengers, often to failure - so we know where weaknesses are. Then we fix the problem.
         
          The physics of creating a bomb has been well understood by the DOE for a long time. That is why we have security and operational measures in place to provide a high level of assurance that these materials remain safe and secure. Nuclear material is not at risk at Department of Energy facilities." (ends)
Letter From POGO To DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration
(Source : Project On Government Oversight ; issued Jan. 24, 2002)
   January 24, 2002
          General John A. Gordon
     Administrator
     National Nuclear Security Administration
     Department of Energy
     1000 Independence Avenue, SW
     Washington, DC 20585
    
          Via Facsimile: (202) 586-4892
    
          Dear General Gordon,
    
   I have seen your statements in the media that security at the DOE
nuclear weapons facilities is tested to failure." You are clearly being
mislead. The managers running security who are briefing you on these
matters are the very people responsible for the ongoing problems.

   The tests to which you are referring have no element of surprise -
giving the protective forces months to practice the specific scenario in
advance. The scenarios are dictated by the facilities themselves. The
adversarial forces' tactics, weapons, and communications are below the
realistic capabilities of terrorist organizations. Any unscripted
element during a mock attack causes the test to be thrown out. This is
not testing to failure.

   The tragedy is that DOE does, in fact, test to failure, but it doesn't intend to.

   POGO is not the only organization critical of DOE nuclear security. In
the past five years, there have been over 50 reports, commissions, and
testimonies concluding that DOE's security at the nuclear weapons
facilities is inadequate. These criticisms have come from a wide range
of government institutions including: the General Accounting Office, the
DOE Inspector General, the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory
Board, the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, the House Committee
on Energy and Commerce, and even internal DOE studies such as the $1
million Hagengruber Report.

   After September 11th you issued a Department-wide order to upgrade the
security posture at most of the Class A sites (those with weapons
quantities of materials). You ordered the protective forces to be able
to prevent a terrorist from entering a facility or vault containing
plutonium or highly-enriched uranium, rather than simply containing the
terrorist inside the facility - the previous standard at most sites. We
applaud that step as it would address the threat of a suicidal terrorist
creating a dirty bomb or homemade nuclear bomb. The problem is that most
of these facilities are simply not capable of doing so with their
current resources. Your protective forces are undermanned, inadequately
trained and out-gunned. We also know you do not have a posture for
dealing with the tactical use of chemical and biological weapons by
terrorists during an attack on a nuclear facility, despite two
Presidential Decision Directives requiring you to do so.

   You have dismissed our assertion that, in more than 50% of the tests,
the government fails to protect nuclear weapons facilities against mock
attacks conducted by military Special Forces. In fact, the Special
Forces who plan and participate in these tests tell us the failure rate
is significantly higher. It is curious that you can dismiss our finding
when you currently have a working group trying to define what a
protective force "win" is. We define a protective force "win" as when
the Special Nuclear Materials stay in the facility and not in the hands
of the terrorists.

   I have contacted your office twice requesting a meeting, but have been
rebuffed. In comparison, the National Security Council, the Scowcroft
Commission and the Office of Homeland Security, all of which are
currently evaluating DOE security, have met with us to discuss our
findings. As you know, the Scowcroft "End-to-End" Review team is highly
critical of DOE's methods of testing and evaluating security at the
facilities, and is concerned about existing vulnerabilities. The Office
of Homeland Security is also greatly concerned with the artificialities
and inadequacies of DOE's testing and in fact are considering
alternatives to having DOE evaluate its own security.

   I again offer to meet with you to brief you on these important matters.

   Sincerely,


Danielle Brian
Executive Director

-ends-

1




prev next

Official reports See all