Lab Security Fails Again
By Notra Trulock
April 2, 2004

In recent months, the media have been full of reports about poor security at the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities. Last November, Vanity Fair published a major exposé about security vulnerabilities at labs in New Mexico and elsewhere. In early January, CBS News’ Sharyl Attkisson reported that a nuclear plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, lost about 250 keys, some of which controlled access to sensitive areas within the plant. In February, CBS’ 60 Minutes ran a story charging that security at nine of the nation’s nuclear facilities is inadequate, perhaps dangerously so.

The response of senior Energy Department officials and lab managers is nearly always the same. Linton Brooks, the federal administrator of these facilities, told Ed Bradley that security at the labs and nuclear plants is “perfectly acceptable.” He said that he’s “comfortable” that the labs and plants are safe. Lab managers routinely shrug off reports like those from last year that showed security forces repeatedly failing to repel mock terrorists during training exercises. Outside experts charge that these failures could have serious consequences for the security of the nation’s stockpiles of nuclear warheads or fissile material.

Hard on the heels of reports that security forces at some lab sites have been cheating, comes another internal Energy Department report that security forces at the labs may not be adequately trained to cope with terrorist attacks or security incidents. The report notes that since 9/11 the Energy Department has sought to enhance its overall security posture. This has included stepped-up training for the 4,000 armed personnel the report says are “responsible for securing the Department’s nuclear materials, weapons, and national security-related information.

In 1999, the Energy Department sought to centralize the training for these personnel at one site in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But gradually, the Department has permitted local managers more latitude in training site personnel. The report found that 10 of the 12 surveyed sites significantly deviated from the core training curriculum established at Albuquerque. The time devoted to training at some sites has been nearly halved; at other sites, training in basic skills required of protective forces has been discontinued altogether. Only one of the 12 sites teaches its security officers how to use a shotgun, “despite the fact that a number of sites used the weapon for breaching exercises and other purposes.”

None of the sites teach rappelling even though, the report says, “it was part of the special response team core curriculum.” Others teach tactical skills in classrooms only; one security official told inspectors that defensive tactics and restraint tactics are “performed in slow motion or at a reduced level of force.”

Security officials told the inspectors that most of the modifications were out of concern for the safety of the trainees. But the report concluded that security forces at the labs and plants may “not be able to safely respond to security incidents.” Given all this, why is Administrator Brooks so confident that his facilities are secure?

Notra Trulock is the Associate Editor of the AIM Report and can be reached at