WASHINGTON -- The Los Alamos National Laboratory last month imposed a new security regimen along two public roads with access to the New Mexico nuclear weapons site.
The newly tightened rules require drivers turning onto laboratory property from the roadways to present a guard with either a driver's license or Energy Department credentials, the laboratory said in a Dec. 21 statement. The facility instituted the change at the direction of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the semiautonomous Energy Department office responsible for oversight of the U.S. nuclear arms complex.
"We're not like an Air Force base or a military post. We're very spread out," laboratory spokesman Kevin Roark said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "We have very high-end security where we need it and almost no security at all where we don't to keep the facility as open as possible."
The Los Alamos laboratory hosts a number of sensitive nuclear arms activities, including the production of plutonium triggers to initiate warhead explosions. In a move with no stated link to the roadway security upgrade, the nuclear agency expects to spend at least $21 million on measures to compensate for a defective security system installed at the facility, according to NNSA records.
In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, planners installed security checkpoints at laboratory entrances on East and West Jemez roads. Until last month's order, though, members of the public could cross into certain sections of the facility without presenting identification.
The change would regularly affect "thousands" of vehicles, many driven by laboratory employees, Roark said, adding one checkpoint had caused him only a "minor" delay on Wednesday morning. Movement on an adjoining thoroughfare called Pajarito Road was limited to government personnel prior to last month's action, and the restriction remains in effect.
The expense of the additional guard operations on East and West Jemez roads is still being worked out, but associated costs would depend on additional hours worked by protective forces, according to Roark. He refused to specify how many security personnel are involved.
The laboratory spokesman also declined to comment on what developments prompted the new measures, or on whether additional protections took effect at the same time. "We are continually reviewing the adequacy of the site security posture and then we take appropriate actions based on results of those reviews," he said.
The changes would remain in place "until further notice," according to a Los Alamos press release. Roark would not specify if the new security regime is be expected to be lifted at any point in the future.
Joshua McConaha, an NNSA spokesman, said the new protections are specific to the Los Alamos site. The agency also oversees nuclear weapons research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.
Security vulnerabilities at U.S. nuclear weapons facilities have been a consistent source of worry for federal officials and watchdogs. The Los Alamos laboratory and its counterparts have reportedly struggled to respond to computer assaults they face on a routine basis, and the Energy Department launched a shakedown of defensive arrangements at the Y-12 National Security Complex following a highly publicized break-in last summer at the Tennessee site.