In 1999, a blue-ribbon government panel concluded that the U.S. Energy Department national labs had compiled the “worst security record members of the panel had ever encountered.” The panel found twenty-five years worth of reports and studies that documented chronic security problems at the national labs. Of particular concern was the recurring pattern of security lapses at the nation’s nuclear weapons design labs? Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia.
In an effort to finally remedy these problems, in 2000 Congress created the National Nuclear Security Administration as a semi-autonomous agency within the Energy Department. The new agency’s primary mission was to identify and fix long-standing security vulnerabilities at the weapons labs. Three years later, however, a new General Accounting Office report indicates that the agency has yet to effectively manage the labs’ security programs. Ironically, the report implies that security may even be worse at the labs today.
The last few months have witnessed a steady flow of security scandals at all three weapons labs. One lab could not account for more than 300 computers, many containing classified data. Major security lapses at two other labs seem to have gone unreported and may have been covered up by lab officials. At one lab, a van was stolen from a secure area and crashed through a security fence. Later it was determined that a computer with classified data was missing from the same area and alert devices may have been turned off during the theft.
There have also been repeated reports of missing or lost special nuclear materials. Outside experts believe that nearly 1,000 tons of plutonium or highly-enriched uranium are stored at the labs. They allege that security for this material has repeatedly been shown to be inadequate. In the aftermath of nine-eleven and concerns about terrorists exploding dirty bombs, the labs’ security failures have attracted increased scrutiny on Capitol Hill. For example, Senator Charles Grassley recently compared the labs to a “candy store with the front door left open and nobody at the register.” Grassley says “our nuclear secrets are not safe.”
Energy Department officials dispute these allegations, but they admit that “lab culture” is still too lax on security. That has prompted Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to order “a broad overhaul of security” at the labs. He wants no further delay in implementing needed changes to security procedures and policies. But no one inside the complex believes that change will come rapidly, if it comes about at all.
Given the scope and magnitude of the security scandals inside our nuclear complex, the mainstream media have been surprisingly passive in their coverage. A recent Congressional hearing that aired some of the worst scandals went almost unnoticed. Security experts fear that terrorists might successfully attack a lab site and steal nuclear materials or even set off a sizable nuclear detonation. Is that what it takes to attract the attention of the media?