New Security Lapse at Los Alamos Triggers Angry Response From Energy Department

(Feb. 27) -Technicians check equipment inside Technical Area 55 at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL photo).
(Feb. 27) -Technicians check equipment inside Technical Area 55 at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL photo).

WASHINGTON -- Plutonium handling practices are so poor at a major U.S. nuclear-weapon laboratory that they threaten the facility's ability to function at all, Energy Department officials warned in a letter this week (see GSN, Feb. 12).

In January, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico reported to Energy Department officials that an "inventory difference" had "exceeded alarm limits," according to a letter back to the laboratory from two National Nuclear Security Administration officials. The Feb. 23 letter was acquired by the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog organization that has persistently raised alarms over lax security practices at Los Alamos and other nuclear laboratories.

The inventory difference involves improper accounting of materials at Technical Area 55, the facility's plutonium research and processing facility, according to a Los Alamos release issued yesterday. The area is responsible in part for producing the plutonium cores for refurbished U.S. nuclear warheads (see GSN, Dec. 17, 2008).

"It’s fairly clear that the inventory list indicates that the material is in a certain spot, in a particular vault, and when they go to check, it’s not there," POGO's Senior Investigator Peter Stockton told Global Security Newswire today, citing conversations with Los Alamos workers. "They have a discrepancy of something around a kilogram of plutonium."

The lapse, however, never constituted a security or safety threat outside the laboratory, according to the Los Alamos release.

"There is 100 percent certainty that no sensitive materials left the facility," the release says, citing extensive physical security measures the laboratory uses to screen personnel entering and leaving the site.

Stockton disparaged those assurances, arguing that repeated security tests at nuclear laboratories have failed, including a dramatic incident last year at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California in which a mock thief used a lacrosse stick to toss two plutonium containers over a perimeter fence (see GSN, May 13, 2008).

"We’ve had fairly significant tests of the facilities from time to time and it’s been shown that insiders can do you great damage in getting material out of there," he said.

The NNSA letter adopts a threatening tone and expresses exasperation that previous recommendations for improving the laboratory's material control and accounting program have not been adopted.

The latest incident "raises questions about the ability of the Los Alamos National Laboratory MC&A; program to accomplish its primary objective, namely to deter and detect theft and diversion of special nuclear material," the letter says.

If not for the physical security measures, "these identified weaknesses in the MC&A; program would impact the ability of the facility to continue operations," it adds.

Two officials in charge of the laboratory's material security measures were dismissed within the past month, Stockton said. He praised the NNSA effort to improve the situation.

"We’ve got to give NNSA credit. They really have done a good job on this. They’ve had about five or six teams in the last year out there trying to get this system fixed," he told GSN, but called for a stronger reaction still.

"A sharply worded letter is a good step, but without financial penalties, improvement is much less likely," he said in a POGO release yesterday.

The laboratory has vowed "to review and improve internal bookkeeping, inventory procedures and processes," says its release.

February 27, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- Plutonium handling practices are so poor at a major U.S. nuclear-weapon laboratory that they threaten the facility's ability to function at all, Energy Department officials warned in a letter this week (see GSN, Feb. 12).