President Bush wakes up every morning thinking about how he can protect the American people from terrorism. He should start having some sleepless nights over the security problems at our Los Alamos nuclear lab in New Mexico. Los Alamos has long been targeted by foreign intelligence services, lately the Chinese Communists, who stole designs for our most modern nuclear weapons. That’s bad enough. But there is also a terrorist threat to the facility.
Peter Stockton of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) says there is a site at Los Alamos known as Technical Area 18, which is in a canyon and is a repository for tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. If al-Qaeda terrorists take over the facility and detonate what is called “an improvised nuclear device,” they could “take out a chunk of northern New Mexico,” he says. “It’s very easily done and it’s very quickly done.” The terrorists would simply place conventional explosives on either end of the nuclear materials, slam them together, and produce a detonation.
“It’s not quite the detonation of a Hiroshima or a Nagasaki,” he explains. “But it’s one to two kilotons, which is a significant bang.”
Stockton says it’s been shown and known for years that there’s a serious security problem down there. Mock terrorist attacks on the facility have been successful. “They simply can’t protect the site,” he says.
Because of the threat, Clinton Energy Secretary Bill Richardson four years ago ordered that nuclear materials be removed from Technical Area 18 by the end of this year. It won’t be done. Bush Energy Secretary Abraham has ordered that the materials be removed by the end of next September. So the security problem and terrorist threat remain.
Stockton says, “This is a perfect case study. If they can’t move the material and secure that facility, they can’t do anything.”
In a never-ending series of lab scandals, Glenn Walp and Steve Doran, two security officials brought in to investigate wrongdoing, were fired for doing their jobs and uncovering corruption in the labs. They had documented nearly $500,000 worth of improper purchases by lab employees. Walp and Doran sued and won more than $1 million in taxpayer-funded settlements.
One lab employee, John Jennings, blew the whistle on his boss, Peter Bussolini, a senior lab official who allegedly used lab funds to make personal purchases, including camping gear, a flat screen TV, power tools, a gas grill and performance tires. While Bussolini and a subordinate were eventually indicted, Jennings’ life was threatened, he was reprimanded, and then given a meaningless job.
Among national reporters, Sharyl Attkisson of the CBS Evening News has been virtually alone in covering these scandals in depth. On the local level, Adam Rankin of the Albuquerque Journal has been breaking major stories on a regular basis.
Many problems stem from mismanagement by the University of California, which has run the labs since 1943 under a contract with the Energy Department. Stockton says that Bush Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has made at least one good move, announcing that the University of California will now have to compete for the contract to manage the labs. But changes may not come quickly enough.
Stockton, who worked for then-Energy Secretary Richardson, says the problem is bipartisan and that Congress has failed to deal with it. The Congress has never had an investigative hearing into the problems at Los Alamos “as long as I know,” he says. He thinks Congress is intimidated and “intellectually insecure” in challenging management of the labs by nuclear scientists.
The latest scandal involves two tapes of classified nuclear weapons data that are missing and possibly stolen. However, New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici played down the scandal, saying that perhaps the tapes didn’t exist in the first place. Stockton comments, “If indeed they didn’t exist, you would have known that in the first two hours of interviews” of employees. “How you can bring this up seven weeks after you’ve been investigating is beyond me,” he says.
Domenici, a Republican, “has been covering up their scandals as best as he can,” says Stockton, while the other New Mexico Senator, Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, has “taken no action” to expose and fix the problems and has been “sitting on the sideline.”
President Bush should take a personal interest in this problem, if he wants to protect his own reputation as someone who wakes up every morning concerned about our security. Of course, there is something more tangible at stake than his reputation?our lives.