Another day, another report of a security scandal from inside the nations’ nuclear weapons laboratories. On January 1, CBS Evening News reported that hundreds of keys were missing at several Energy Department nuclear facilities around the nation. CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson told viewers that some of the keys controlled access to laboratory buildings that contain classified or sensitive materials and information.
Her report was triggered by revelations that two-hundred keys have turned up missing at the Y-12 nuclear plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Y-12 was set up during World War II to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear warheads. Today, Y-12 refurbishes nuclear warheads and serves as a major storage facility for HEU. Attkisson said that some of the missing keys controlled access to sensitive areas at the plant. Energy Department spokesmen tried to stonewall her and sent security guards out to harass her when she did a standup in front of the headquarters building in Washington, DC.
Plant spokesmen dismissed concerns about the vulnerability of sensitive information and materials. One told the media that most of the keys were to “administrative, non-sensitive functions.” He did admit that a “relatively small number of keys” were for what the plant considers “medium security” buildings. But all of these facilities have already been rekeyed, according the spokesman. Another shrugged off the lost keys and pointed to reports about similar problems at other labs in California and New Mexico.
Attkisson said these references were to reports earlier this year about the loss of keys at Livermore National Lab in California and Sandia National Lab in New Mexico. At Sandia, she reported that a set of master keys had gone missing for more than a week. The potential security breach went unreported and no one bothered to change the locks.
She also reported on a more serious security problem at Livermore. In early November, an internal Energy Department report found that more than 100,000 locks will have to be changed at the California lab as a result of lost master keys and master-key cards. The estimated cost to the taxpayer will be $1.7 million dollars. The internal report warned that some of the missing keys opened locks leading to “some of the most sensitive areas of the lab.” Moreover, in some cases, the lab had experienced a “double failure.” That means that the two primary types of security locks protecting the same area are compromised at the same time. But Livermore responded that there was no evidence that classified materials had been jeopardized.
The report also criticizes the lab for failing to report the losses in a timely fashion and also for failing to recognize the potential security vulnerability. After Attkisson’s CBS News report, the Energy Department announced that it was set to launch a “lock and key inventory” at all the nation’s nuclear labs. That is the second time her reporting has prodded the department to review security at its labs. Last year, her stories about fraud and mismanagement at Los Alamos led to firings and reassignments of top lab managers.