DOE Plans May Move Unprotected Plutonium from LANL to Nevada Test Site

Following claims by the Project on Government Oversight (or POGO) that several tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium at Technical Area-18 (or TA-18) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) are not adequately protected against attack or theft, the Department of Energy (or DOE) is investigating the possibility of moving the material to the Nevada Test Site (or NTS). TA-18 is located at the confluence of Pajarito Canyon and Threemile Canyon. In a series of military exercises, LANL defense forces have never been able to protect the weapons-grade nuclear materials that are stored there. John Browne, LANL's director, said that the proposed move is, "the best overall decision to meet the post-September 11th challenges for the long-term security of nuclear activities."

LANL has been plagued by security breaches in the last decade and, particularly at TA-18, has proven its security methods ineffective for protecting nuclear materials. In fact, during a 1997 security exercise, U.S. Special Forces were able to remove enough weapons-grade uranium for several nuclear warheads. Peter Stockton, of POGO, said, "There is no doubt that [TA-18] was at high risk. They simply could not defend it." A series of military exercises over the years has proven that the DOE complex can protect against attack only 50% of the time.

For example, at Rocky Flats in Colorado, Navy SEALs were able to cut a hole in the chain link fence surrounding the facility, climb through, and steal a significant amount of mock plutonium without being noticed. Shortly after the September 11th attacks, Danielle Brian, of POGO, said, "[DOE] never really believed that there would be a threat, and they never believed that terrorists would be sophisticated. Now we've seen ... that you don't have to be sophisticated to access these materials."

LANL is considering some steps towards tightening security around its site, including restricting access to Pajarito Road, which runs in front of TA-18 and TA-55, which houses the plutonium processing facility. Nevertheless, POGO recommends positioning small SWAT teams at DOE's nuclear weapons facilities and consolidating nuclear material into two already existing underground locations, including a facility at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. A release by POGO said, "underground facilities ... are easier to protect than the 10 sites currently spread across the country." POGO also recommends removing security management and oversight duties from DOE's jurisdiction, which they say "has proven itself incapable of reform."

Three years ago, Stockton chaired a DOE team that recommended to then-Secretary Bill Richardson that the materials be moved. Richardson then ordered an investigation. Stockton said, "We spend $3 billion on securing these places, and the American people expect and believe that they are secure."

The material at TA-18 is used in research projects in which scientists examine how electronic components of nuclear weapons respond to small, short-lived nuclear explosions. Currently, the plan to move the material at TA-18 to NTS is under environmental review. Although no final decision has been made, a DOE spokesperson said that shipping the weapons material to NTS is the preferred option. A decision is expected by next month. A Congressional investigation has also been initiated to examine POGO's claims.

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