Charles D. Ferguson
Scientific Consultant, Fellow for Science and Technology, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
DOE’s Domestic Nuclear Security Initiatives
The resonating effects of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have forced the United States to reassess the state of security at the Department of Energy's (DOE's) nuclear facilities. In the years since, both governmental and non-governmental organizations have raised concern over inadequate defenses at these locations. Lost keys to sensitive buildings, guards asleep at their posts, and widely dispersed storage facilities that house potentially vulnerable, nuclear-bomb-grade material are a few of the problems underscored by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the Project on Government Oversight, and the news media.
Responding to these reported deficiencies, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham on May 7, 2004, presented a set of initiatives to improve security at DOE facilities around the country. The efforts include more stringent safeguards on sensitive nuclear information; reinforced physical security to prevent unwarranted intrusion; consolidation of widely dispersed, nuclear-weapons-grade material; and management adjustments to improve information exchange between DOE employees and their supervisors. Although these newly proposed initiatives are praiseworthy, DOE may need to devote more effort toward developing effective action plans to ensure that the highest priority security improvements are completed first. In particular, because of the relative ease of use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in a terrorist-constructed crude nuclear weapon, or improvised nuclear device, DOE should ensure that HEU stockpiles are secured and consolidated expeditiously. Moreover, by down blending all excess HEU to non-weapons-usable form as soon as possible, DOE could further substantially work to prevent the most catastrophic acts of nuclear terror. Finally, although Secretary Abraham has committed DOE to reevaluate the design basis threat (DBT) – the government's assessment of plausible, but challenging, threats faced by nuclear facilities – on an annual basis, many critics have expressed concern that the most recently revised DBT from May 2002 significantly underestimates the size of post-9/11 terrorist assault forces.
Since September 11, 2001, the state of security at several U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear facilities has come under increasing scrutiny. In October 2001, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a non-governmental organization that serves as a watchdog on the federal government's activities concerning security of nuclear facilities, issued the report U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Security at Risk. The report identified five major security problems in the nuclear weapons complex:
The U.S. government's own watchdog, the General Accounting Office (GAO), found similar potential vulnerabilities at many nuclear facilities managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency within DOE responsible for maintaining safeguards and security over nuclear materials. In particular, in May 2003, GAO issued a report that concluded, "NNSA has not been fully effective in managing its safeguards and security program in four key areas." These are:
The GAO report underscores inconsistencies in DOE and NNSA's oversight of security forces at nuclear facilities. In particular, NNSA site offices have employed two different approaches. "Three of the seven NNSA site offices use the traditional survey approach, as required by DOE policy, to oversee security activities, while four have discontinued surveys and instead rely on surveillance activities." While a survey "provides a comprehensive annual review, by a team of experts from throughout NNSA," a surveillance approach is much more cursory and typically involves only "one or a small number of NNSA site officials" reviewing "one or more security activities."
News media reports also have highlighted potential weaknesses at DOE nuclear facilities. In November 2003, the Washington Post reported that DOE's Inspector General, Gregory Friedman, had determined that DOE employees had lost a dozen keys to sensitive facilities, requiring the U.S. government to spend millions of dollars to change thousands of locks. Also in November 2003, Vanity Fair magazine profiled Richard Levernier, a former senior DOE nuclear security specialist, who had run security intrusion exercises for the U.S. government for six years. "In more than 50 percent of our tests of the Los Alamos facility," he stated, "we got in, captured the plutonium, got out again, and in some cases didn't fire a shot because we didn't encounter any guards." DOE's January 2004 Inspector General's report Protective Force Performance Test Improprieties identified potential security flaws at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where hundreds of tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be readily used in nuclear bombs, are stored.
In response to this mounting criticism, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham unveiled four broad initiatives, in a May 7, 2004, speech at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina, to bolster security at nuclear facilities nationwide, as well as to transform DOE's "management culture" to foster an environment where "whistleblowers"—individuals working at government facilities who observe serious flaws in security practices—are encouraged to voice concern. First, Secretary Abraham proposed a plan to augment Internet and information-related security at DOE's facilities. DOE plans to implement high-tech, Internet-based defense measures, designed to frustrate hackers and other cyber-threats, and to transmit timely warning of potential and actual cyber-threats to DOE employees. Additionally, DOE plans to move to a "media-less" computing system where no computer disks (removable hard-drives, floppy disks, or compact disks) are used, so as to prevent thieves and other malicious people from walking away with nuclear weapons design information and other sensitive data on nuclear arms and materials.
Second, DOE will overhaul the physical security infrastructure at its facilities. Secretary Abraham intends to phase out traditional keys to sensitive facilities over a five-year period, replacing them with more sophisticated devices, such as biometric security systems, which are less susceptible to unlawful use. He also stated that he will establish uniform and realistic training methods for DOE security personnel. Existing security measures at facilities have recently come under fire for multiple failings such as a lack of sufficient manpower to repel a terrorist intrusion, unrealistic training exercises where guards have prior knowledge of simulated threats, and reductions in necessary training time.
While DOE issued a revised post-September 11, 2001, design basis threat (DBT) in May 2003, Abraham called for annual assessments and upgrades to the DBT to ensure maximum preparedness against evolving threats. The DBT is an official assessment of the plausible, but challenging, threats that security personnel at nuclear facilities should be able to repel. Abraham also suggested possible federalization of security forces and even the creation of an elite security force, resembling an Army Ranger or a Navy SEAL unit, to quell and deter terrorist plots. Currently, private contractors hire and train security guards at DOE nuclear facilities; however, DOE and NNSA are responsible for providing oversight, as discussed above. Regardless of whether federalization of guard forces takes place, Abraham announced that he planned to introduce better methods to recruit top quality security employees, including faster background checks to obtain security clearances, improved employee benefits, and an intern program designed to attract quality personnel.
Third, Secretary Abraham proposed a strategy to consolidate strategic special nuclear material into fewer facilities. This nuclear-weapon-usable material is defined as plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) enriched in the isotopes uranium-233 or uranium-235. Specifically, he envisioned: removing HEU fuel from the Sandia Pulsed Reactor in a three-year period; accelerating the construction of the HEU Materials Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex that would combine the two existing HEU storage facilities; permanently relocating all the most dangerous nuclear materials from Technical Area 18 (TA-18) at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico; relocating "essential defense-related research" and respective nuclear material at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California to another site; and investigating the feasibility of down-blending about 100 tons of HEU at Y-12 to non-weapons-grade enrichments.
Fourth, as noted earlier, the Secretary called for a change of "management culture" at DOE that encourages constructive criticism, saying that "people should never have to be worried about the perils of doing their jobs honestly, safely, and correctly."
All the proposed initiatives, when implemented, will significantly strengthen security at DOE facilities. But it is important to understand the basis of these initiatives, from the exposed security blemishes that led to their proposal to the threats that they are designed to address.
The proposal to augment information security measures intends to decrease the susceptibility of classified weapons-related material to theft or unlawful use. Accessing sensitive data from removable computer disks and CDs would be relatively easy if such media were improperly stored, misplaced— for example, in the Fall of 2002, when it was reported that 200 missing computers from LANL may have contained classified information—or misused by insiders. For example, if terrorists or states seeking nuclear weapons seized computer disks containing sensitive nuclear-weapons blueprints, they could essentially leapfrog an otherwise significant obstacle to constructing functional nuclear weapons. This is similar to the threat posed by the illicit nuclear trading network of A.Q. Khan, from which North Korea and Iran allegedly acquired some of their nuclear know-how and where Libya, before its public renunciation of WMD, acquired uranium enrichment technologies and weapons designs.
The proposed physical security enhancements try to rectify potentially exploitable security insufficiencies at DOE nuclear facilities. Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, DOE elevated security at these facilities. However, according to an April 2004 GAO report, the prolonged heightened security posture has "been expensive and has resulted in fatigue, retention problems, and less training for sites' protective force." GAO further concluded that uniform, even federalized, security training and evaluation standards would relieve much of the stress that has been overwhelming security personnel for more than two years. Moreover, the DBT was suffering from archaic threat assessments that failed to account for those formulated by the intelligence community's Postulated Threat, which, as described by Joseph S. Mahaley of the DOE's Office of Security, is:
based on intelligence information detailing actual terrorist attacks and the equipment and tactics utilized in the attacks, expert judgments regarding stated terrorist intentions and the ability of the terrorist to execute the stated objectives, and postulated capability based on the latest knowledge concerning terrorist activities.
For example, according to the same GAO report, DOE's 2003 DBT anticipated attacks from smaller terrorist groups than those conceived in the Postulated Threat. Furthermore, an updated DBT in response to 9/11 took nearly two years to formulate, partly due to the delayed formulation of the Postulated Threat, but also because of "DOE's lengthy comment and review process for developing policy." Abraham's proposed annual evaluation of the DBT and possible creation of an elite security force is intended to better prepare DOE to address the post-9/11 world's rapidly changing and increasingly virulent security threats.
Similarly, DOE's consolidation plan for its geographically dispersed weapons-usable nuclear material comes in response to a previously underestimated assessment of terrorist nuclear capabilities. While most terrorist groups would not be capable of building nuclear weapons, a well-organized and well-financed terrorist organization could probably assemble the needed expertise. For such a group, the main barrier to assembling a crude, yet devastating, nuclear weapon is acquisition of sufficient quantities of bomb-usable material: either highly enriched uranium or plutonium. HEU poses a greater security concern than plutonium because only it can fuel the simplest nuclear weapon—a gun-type device—based on the design of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. (Plutonium would have to be used in the more technically challenging implosion-type bomb.) If terrorists seized enough nuclear-weapons material, they would most likely transport it to a safe haven where they would attempt to build an improvised nuclear device (IND), which they would then try to detonate at a high-value target, such as an American city. Another alarming scenario is that suicidal terrorists could storm a DOE nuclear materials storage facility bringing with them a skeletal nuclear device — a fully assembled nuclear weapon minus the HEU. If they were able to penetrate the security system, the terrorists could quickly try to gather sufficient HEU, assemble it into the skeletal IND, and detonate it within the facility, killing themselves and many more in a short amount of time. By consolidating weapons-grade material to a much smaller number of sites within the nuclear weapons complex and strengthening the security at these sites, DOE would reduce the amount of facilities that terrorists could target and make penetrating nuclear materials storage facilities even more challenging.
While the ultimate completion of Secretary Abraham's initiatives will be an overwhelmingly positive achievement, certain concerns remain with the timeliness and order of their implementation. Although the updated DBT addresses elevated security hazards, crucial security upgrades at DOE facilities will probably not be realized until after 2006 or even for another five years. As Stephen I. Schwartz reports in the July/August 2004 edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, insufficient funding for DOE upgrades and security-related programs largely contributes to these delays. He further highlights what he considers to be DOE's misguided spending policies, which for Fiscal Year 2005, call for DOE "to spend a whopping $5.6 billion on 'stockpile stewardship'…for programs associated with maintaining the nuclear stockpile and developing new nuclear capabilities." This funding proposal surpasses the average annual spending on comparable programs during the Cold War and makes the few tens of millions of dollars tagged for DBT security spending look puny in comparison. Therefore, Schwartz advises DOE to realign budget priorities and direct more funding and resources to preventing the prevailing nuclear security threat—nuclear terrorism.
Schwartz also criticizes DOE for underestimating the hypothesized size of terrorist attacks in the revised 2003 DBT. Although the details of the DBT are protected information, previous reporting buttresses his concern. For instance, the aforementioned 2004 GAO report underscored this weakness, and the Global Security Newswire reported on September 10, 2003, that while the new DBT has increased the size of the postulated attacking force from that postulated in the pre-9/11 DBT, it still falls substantially short of the size of the 9/11 terrorist force (19 men operating in four cells).
Another serious concern is the apparent prioritization of these initiatives as outlined in Secretary Abraham's speech. While all address important security issues, the most critical threats should be tackled with greater emphasis than lesser ones. For instance, terrorist acquisition of bomb-grade HEU presents hazards that could far outweigh misplaced or lost computer disks. The loss of disks would elevate the probability of malicious individuals or nuclear-aspirant states obtaining sensitive weapons information. However, the concept behind the simplest nuclear bomb is well known, and as previously mentioned, if terrorists acquired sufficient HEU, they would have a high probability of building such a weapon. Therefore, all proposed initiatives must undergo implementation as quickly as possible, but consolidation of bomb-grade nuclear material—with priority placed on HEU—must be the top priority. Another high priority is that all excess HEU should be down blended to a non-weapons-usable form as soon as possible.
In particular, proposed consolidation efforts regarding the Sandia Pulsed Reactor and LLNL need alteration. In line with the Project on Government Oversight's recommendations, a computer simulation system should replace the Sandia Pulsed Reactor far faster than the three-year period contemplated in Secretary Abraham's speech. The reactor experiences limited use; thus, the prompt removal and relocation of HEU reactor fuel to the remote Device Assembly Facility (DAF), located at the Nevada Test Site (NTS), would have minimal negative impact on scientific research. Furthermore, as POGO recommends, DOE should relocate all weapons-grade material at LLNL to the DAF site. DAF is a 100,000-square-foot complex with extensive research and testing facilities capable of satisfying the particular research needs of LLNL scientists. POGO asserts that such a move would save LLNL $30 million a year while considerably improving the security of the material. Additionally, DOE should seriously consider expanding the HEU and plutonium relocation effort to other DOE and civilian research facilities that house this material to either the DAF site or Y-12, depending on economic and research feasibility.
DOE's recommendations for permanent removal of TA-18's nuclear-weapon-usable materials to a more secure site are encouraging, but DOE tried unsuccessfully to remove these materials four years ago. In April 2000, responding to internal DOE reports of lax security, then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson ordered that "all weapons-grade materials be removed from TA-18 and delivered to the Nevada Test Site by 2003." DOE should ensure that bureaucratic obstacles are cleared to bring this removal and consolidation initiative to a successful and rapid conclusion.
These recommended alterations to DOE's laudable security initiatives provide guidance to help propel them in the most effective direction, so as to best protect citizens from the preventable catastrophe of nuclear terrorism.
 Project on Government Oversight (POGO), U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Security at Risk, Report, October 2001, www.pogo.org.
 U.S. General Accounting Office, Nuclear Security: NNSA Needs to Better Manage Its Safeguards and Security Program, GAO-03-471, May 2003. See, the follow-on report U.S. General Accounting Office, Nuclear Security: DOE Faces Security Challenges in the Post September 11, 2001, Environment, GAO-03-896TNI, June 24, 2003.
 Brian Faler, "Nuclear Weapons Lab Loses 12 Keys," Washington Post, November 7, 2003.
 Mark Hertsgaard, "Nuclear Insecurity," Vanity Fair, November 2003, p. 180; see also Associated Press, "Weapons Lab Security Lax, DOE Whistleblower Charges," Washington Post, October 7, 2003, p. A5. Two years before the Vanity Fair article, the Project on Government Oversight drew attention to security problems raised by the mock attacks conducted by Levernier. Project on Government Oversight, U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Security at Risk. Critics of Levernier complained that he had always directed his mock terrorists to exploit weak links. His supporters retort that, of course, "red team" members would not be doing their jobs if they did not target weaknesses. Reportedly, in one of the mock attacks, the red team hauled away weapons-grade material in a Home Depot garden cart. Some laboratory authorities charged that this cart was unfairly used because it was not on the list of approved items for the mock attack. In response, Anson Franklin, a National Nuclear Security Administration spokesperson, stated, "Any implication that there is a 50 percent failure rate on security tests at our nuclear-weapons sites cannot be supported by the facts and is not true. The impression has been given that these tests are staged like football games with winners and losers. But the whole idea of these exercises is to test for weaknesses—we want to find them before any adversaries could—and then make adjustments." Hertsgaard, pp. 180-182.
 U.S. Department of Energy Inspection Report, Protective Force Performance Test Improprieties, January 2004.
 Secretary Abraham's May 7th speech from the Department of Energy's website: www.energy.gov.
 U.S. Department of Energy Inspector General Report, Protective Force Performance Test Improprieties, January 2004. Additional information concerning the inability to repel terrorist intrusions at DOE nuclear facilities can be found in the article: Dave Montgomery, "Security at Nuclear Facilities Questioned," Star-Telegram, March 16, 2004.
 Program on Government Oversight: "Classified Computer Media Missing at Los Alamos," May 20, 2004, www.pogo.org.
 U.S. General Accounting Office, DOE Needs to Resolve Significant Issues before It Fully Meets the Design Basis Threat, GAO-04-623, April 2004, www.gao.gov.
 Robin M. Nazzaro, Director, Natural Resources and Environment Team, General Accounting Office, Testimony before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, published in U.S. General Accounting Office, Nuclear Security: DOE Must Address Significant Issues to Meet the Requirements of the New Design Basis Threat, GAO-04-773T, May 11, 2004, www.gao.gov.
Joseph S. Mahaley, Director, Office of Security, Department of Energy, "House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations Committee on Government Reform," June 24, 2003, www.energy.gov.
 Hertsgaard, "Nuclear Insecurity."
 The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2004) by Charles D. Ferguson, William C. Potter, Amy Sands, Leonard S. Spector, and Fred L. Wehling discusses in detail the need for a lesser amount of HEU at fewer sites around the world and fewer locations containing HEU at each site.
 "U.S. Energy Department Likely to Miss Deadline, GAO Reports," Global Security Newswire, April 28, 2004, www.nti.org.
 Stephen I. Schwartz, "A Slow Sort of Security," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2004.
 Schwartz quotes Congressman Shays as saying, "A serious question remains whether the DBT adequately reflects the true nature of the threat…Some believe the [DBT] might be more accurately called the 'dollar basis threat,' reflecting only a watered-down measure of how much security the [Energy] Department can afford." Ibid.
 "Poor Management, Training, Hampers Lawrence Livermore Laboratory's Security Force," Global Security Newswire, September 10, 2003, www.nti.org.
 "Testimony of POGO's Danielle Brian Before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation," Project on Government Oversight, May 11, 2004, www.pogo.org.
 Hertsgaard, "Nuclear Insecurity," op. cit. p. 188.
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