Bush Fails to Safeguard US Nuclear Material

November 5th, 2007 - by admin

Matthew L. Wald / The New York Times & the Project on Government Oversight – 2007-11-05 22:06:09

Security Upgrades at Several Nuclear Sites Are Lagging, Auditors Find
Matthew L. Wald / The New York Times

WASHINGTON, DC (October 29, 2007) — More than a year after Congress told the Energy Department to harden the nation’s nuclear bomb factories and laboratories against terrorist raids, at least 5 of the 11 sites are certain to miss their deadlines, some by many years.

The Energy Department has put off security improvements at some sites that store plutonium because it plans to consolidate the material at central locations, but the Government Accountability Office said in a Senate briefing that that project was also likely to lag. A copy of the briefing materials was provided to The New York Times by a private group, the Project on Government Oversight, which has long been pushing for better security at the weapons sites.

Danielle Brian, the group’s executive director, said that although the deadline set by Congress was tight, if the Energy Department “had taken seriously consolidating and making this an expedited effort, they wouldn’t be having these problems now.”

Robert Alvarez, an adviser to the energy secretary in the Clinton administration, said there was wide agreement that centralizing the fuel was a good idea. But Mr. Alvarez added, “There’s a lot of pushback about moving fissile materials from a site, because then you lose a portion of your budget and prestige.”

The Energy Department declined requests for an interview, but Michael Kilpatrick, a deputy chief at the department’s Office of Health, Safety and Security, said in a statement that the steps under way were “further enhancements and better protection to some of the most secure facilities in the country.”

But Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has taken a particular interest in nuclear security, said in a statement, “The department seems to think that the terrorist threat to its nuclear facilities is no more serious than a Halloween prank, as evidenced by its failure — more than six years after the 9/11 attacks — to do what it must to keep our stores of nuclear-weapons-grade materials secure.” Mr. Markey said the delay was unsurprising but unacceptable.

One site that will miss its deadline by years is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which holds a large stock of weapons-usable uranium. The laboratory plans to dilute the uranium, but that will take until 2015, the auditors found.

Two other sites that will miss their deadlines are operated by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for weapons security. The agency was established in 1999 after a number of security breaches in the weapons complex, and in January its director was forced to resign because of other security lapses.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Energy Department changed its “design basis threat,” the description of the attacking force against which the weapons sites should prepare their defenses. The details of this design basis threat are classified, but the new definition specifies a larger and more capable group of attackers.

To emphasize the importance of the preparations, Congress wrote into law that the Energy Department sites should submit plans on how the department would meet the requirements. Recognizing that much of the department’s work runs far behind schedule, Congress specified that if a delay were necessary, it would have to be approved by the secretary or deputy secretary of energy.

An unclassified version of the Energy Department’s first report to Congress, in July 2006, said that more than $420 million had been spent in the previous three years in an “aggressive” program. Among the changes was giving security officers armored vehicles and large-caliber weapons. That change reduced “the need to hire more security officers to account for the expected attrition that would be a natural result of the increased adversary force.”

The department has rewritten its design basis threat several times. Mr. Kilpatrick said in his statement that all sites now met the 2003 version of the design basis threat and were working toward the current version, set in 2005.

The Energy Department told Congress in 2006 that six sites would meet the 2008 deadline. But the accountability office said that one of those, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, would not make the deadline.

The Energy Department said work at the five other sites would be completed later; those are the Nevada Test Site, the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington State, the Idaho National Laboratory, the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Y-12, a weapons site in Tennessee.

The G.A.O. said in July that the Idaho National Laboratory would not be done until 2013, four years later than the Energy Department’s estimate.

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GAO Report Confirms POGO Report Citing
DOE Failures on Nuclear Materials Storage

Project on Government Oversight

(October 29, 2007) — The Department of Energy is failing to secure bomb-grade nuclear materials located at US facilities, according to two reports obtained by POGO. Less than half of eleven nuclear weapons sites will have enough security to defend against what is considered a realistic threat of a terrorist attack by the deadline of 2008.

An unreleased briefing from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that “sites will be at greater risk” until the new security is put in place.

The reports concern what is called the “Design Basis Threat” (DBT), which are security standards developed based upon government intelligence assessments. The DBT is classified and includes factors such as the number of attackers, the weapons they might use, and circumstances under which an attack would take place.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the DBT was significantly revised and “has undergone substantial changes in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007,” according to the GAO. DOE has currently fallen behind on implementing the 2005 DBT. Plans to implement upgrades to the DBT can costs hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars as new security personnel are hired or the government invests in technology upgrades.

POGO, numerous government reports, and the Congress have urged the DOE to shrink the number of sites which contain nuclear weapons materials in order to avoid having to invest billions of dollars in security upgrades. One POGO report estimated that shrinking the number of nuclear sites in half could save $3 billion (US Nuclear Weapons Complex: Homeland Security Opportunities).

However, bureaucratic inaction and protectionism at DOE and its sites has thwarted progress forward. Of all the nuclear sites scattered nationwide, only one site to date has been de-inventoried of its nuclear materials, the infamous TA-18 at Los Alamos National Laboratory where mock attackers regularly succeeded in stealing or “blowing up” materials in simulated tests.

In response to budgetary pressures posed by the excessive security costs that would result from the 2005 DBT, the DOE responded by watering down security requirements. Insiders who suggested that DOE consolidate its materials to fewer sites in order to save money were ignored according to internal emails. According to POGO’s 2006 report:

On November 30, 2005, the Secretary [of Energy] lowered the security requirements, reverting to a security posture closer to the 2003 DBT. An exception was that Pantex, which houses assembled nuclear warheads and SNM [Special Nuclear Material], and the Office of Security Transportation, which transports assembled nuclear weapons and SNM, would stay at the far more robust 2004 DBT level. For the other sites, including the sites with a high IND [Improvised Nuclear Device] risk, the number of adversaries were reduced by approximately 25%.

The sites are supposed to implement the new 2005 requirements by 2008 – again, almost seven years after 9/11. It is important to note that, according to government investigators interviewed by POGO, the Russian DBT standards to protect their nuclear materials are more robust than even the most robust US 2004 DBT. (US Nuclear Weapons Complex: Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory At High Risk)

Other Resources

• (Declassified) Department of Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman’s letter to Representative David Hobson, Chairman, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies, Committee on Appropriations, US House of Representatives, July 14, 2006.

• GAO Analysis of Department of Energy Report to the Congress on Implementing the 2005 Design Basis Threat , Briefing for the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, July 27, 2007.

• Security Upgrades at Several Nuclear Sites Are Lagging, Auditors Find, New York Times, October 29, 2007.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is an independent nonprofit that investigates and exposes corruption and other misconduct in order to achieve a more accountable federal government.