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U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Security At Risk
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<-- Return To 21st Century Warfare

The Project On Government Oversight
U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex:
Security At Risk

October 2001


Note: The full report is available on line from The Project On Government Oversight.

The Department of Energy (DOE) analyzes and tests the security of nuclear weapons facilities by conducting simulations and mock force-on-force exercises, often using U.S. military forces as adversaries. The government requires that nuclear facilities be able to defend against theft of nuclear materials or radiological sabotage by a few terrorists using surprise and readily available weapons and explosives, as well as against the theft of nuclear secrets.

According to experts who have conducted these tests in the past, the government fails to protect against these attacks more than 50% of the time � although the exact figure is classified. For example, in a test at the Rocky Flats nuclear production facility, Navy SEALs successfully �stole� enough material to make multiple nuclear weapons. In a test at a Los Alamos facility, the �terrorists� had enough time to construct an Improvised Nuclear Device. In addition, the theft of nuclear secrets remains as possible today as it was several years ago before the controversy over the downloading of classified information at Los Alamos.

DOE employees and others who have raised security concerns have largely been ignored and subjected to retaliation over many years. This report details several case studies of whistleblowers being fired, being forced to resign, losing contracts or losing security responsibilities because they were unwilling to quietly accept the inadequate security measures at DOE nuclear facilities. In one example, in a desperate attempt to raise public awareness last year about these problems, a DOE employee faxed two unclassified Inspector General reports to USA Today and the Washington Post, which highlighted the Department�s failure to take corrective measures. His security clearance was suspended and he is no longer working on security issues.

DOE�s disregard for proven threats to nuclear security and its institutional bull-headedness has thwarted the efforts of reformers, time and time again. According to a review by Senator Warren Rudman, �scores of critical reports from the General Accounting Office (GAO), the intelligence community, independent commissions, private management consultants, its Inspector General, and its own security experts...the Department�s ingrained behavior and values have caused it to continue to falter and fail.�


Ten major sites have weapons-grade plutonium (PU) and highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in sufficient quantities to make a nuclear device even though most of them have not had a national defense mission since the end of the Cold War. Several of these sites are located near major metropolitan areas including the Bay area of Northern California; Denver, Colorado; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Knoxville, Tennessee (see Metropolitan Areas Within 100 miles of Nuclear Weapons Facilities chart below). In addition, the DOE Transportation Safety Division regularly moves weapons-grade nuclear materials and nuclear weapons between facilities across the country. Because many tons of weapons-grade nuclear materials are at these facilities, a nuclear detonation at one of them would dwarf the impacts of Chernobyl, potentially kill or injure millions of Americans, and destroy the environment of a significant portion of the United States.

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has conducted a series of interviews and consultations with nuclear security and terrorism experts to identify the following major problems with nuclear facility security and their solutions:

PROBLEM: Nuclear Materials Are Spread Across the Country. Weapons-quantity special nuclear materials are stored at 10 fixed sites even though most have virtually no national security mission. DOE cannot currently adequately protect this material, and security at each site unnecessarily increases redundancies and costs. Not only do the unnecessary sites cost the taxpayers billions annually, but they also present a significant health and safety risk to nearby communities.

SOLUTION: Close Unneeded Facilities. The Base Realignment and Closure Commission should be empowered to recommend closing the unneeded and redundant DOE sites, as well as those sites that have no national defense mission. The Bush Administration is considering this step.

SOLUTION: Consolidate Nuclear Materials. Two of the most secure facilities in the world would provide enough storage for the entire DOE weapons complex � a secure underground weapons storage facility at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico and the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada Test Site.

SOLUTION: Immobilize Excess Nuclear Materials. There is a facility at Savannah River which could be used to meld excess nuclear materials with a radioactive barrier in glass. Once the materials have been immobilized or �vitrified�, they would no longer be useful to terrorists.

PROBLEM: Bureaucracy Makes Security Tests Easier Rather than Fixing Problems. The DOE bureaucracy portrays facilities as being secure and impervious to terrorists and spies when, in fact, they are not.

SOLUTION: Improve Effectiveness of Protective Forces. Until disparate sites are consolidated, DOE should increase the size of its protective force and improve weaponry, tactics, and command, control, and communication to defend against both theft and radiological sabotage. Federalizing protective forces or exploring use of the military are two options.

PROBLEM: Independence in Nuclear Security is Lacking. The recently Congressionally-created National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) exacerbates the problem by elevating the same people who have managed this debacle over the last three decades.

SOLUTION: Take Security Management Out of DOE. POGO suggests exploring the option of setting up an independent agency to provide security from outside DOE entirely, and leave the many other duties of managing the nuclear weapons complex to the NNSA.

SOLUTION: Move the Independent Oversight Office Out of DOE. Make oversight of nuclear security independent from those charged with implementing security by making the DOE Office of Independent Oversight an Independent Nuclear Facilities Security Board that is independent of DOE. A model would be the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. This board would report directly to the Congress and be empowered to assess security in the nuclear complex.

PROBLEM: Computers Containing Nuclear Secrets Remain Vulnerable. It is virtually as easy today for a trusted �insider� to put weapons design information on a tape or disk and walk out the door as it was during the controversy at Los Alamos. All of our known spies have been insiders with the highest security clearances.

SOLUTION: Convert to Media-less Computing. The only way to stop an �insider� is to stop any media (disks, tapes, laptops, etc.) from coming in or out of priority classified areas. Computers would be locked in vaults and access to any media would require a �two-man rule� where two people would have to sign-off on any copies.

PROBLEM: DOE Security Forces Cut by 40%. According to a high-level DOE official, �Since 1992, the number of Protective Forces at DOE sites nationwide has decreased by almost 40% (from 5,640 to the current number of approximately 3,500) while the inventory of nuclear material has increased by 30%.� The increase has resulted from the dismantling of nuclear weapons and the receipt of nuclear materials from the Former Soviet Union. During the same period the threat of terrorism has increased.


SOLUTION: Consider Security Budgetary Needs Independently. Decouple nuclear security funding from scientific research and the nuclear weapons program. Security funding currently competes with scientific research funding from within the National Nuclear Security Administration nuclear weapons budget. Security is always fighting for the scraps after the more politically appealing and bureaucratically popular scientific research and weapons projects are funded.

Note: The full report is available on line from The Project On Government Oversight.

<-- Return To 21st Century Warfare

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