Terrorist Fears Could Prompt Transfer of Nuclear Materials

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, August 12, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Department of Energy may be planning to move all weapons grade nuclear materials out of a facility in New Mexico over concerns that the plutonium and uranium could be vulnerable to theft by terrorists. The plan, long denied by the agency, represents the first effort to move nuclear materials to reduce the risk of theft since the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Though Energy Department (DOE) officials and spokespeople have said a number of times in recent months that no decision had been made regarding moving the materials from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a document leaked to the independent Project on Government Oversight (POGO) provides new evidence that the DOE has decided to move bomb grade nuclear materials, related equipment and research activities out of the a facility at Los Alamos.

The plutonium and uranium would be taken from Technical Area 18 (TA-18) at Los Alamos and shipped to the Nevada Test Site, located in the desert about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Los Alamos

The facilities at Los Alamos National Laboratory lie amid a series of ridges and canyons that experts make some sites highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks. (Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory)
"This is the most sensible move DOE has made towards making the nuclear weapons complex more secure," said POGO senior investigator Peter Stockton. "They've become so accustomed to hiding their stupid moves, they don't realize they would be congratulated for this important step."

POGO, a nonprofit watchdog group, has released a letter written by John Browne, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, to Everet Beckner, deputy administrator of defense programs for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The NNSA manages the inventory and control of nuclear weapons, fuel and other weapons components for the DOE.

The June 28 letter states that, "Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) agrees with NNSA that the best overall decision to meet the post September 11th challenges for the long term security of nuclear activities associated with TA-18 is to move the CAT-I/II [nuclear] materials and their associated equipment to the Nevada Test Site Device Assembly Facility. CAT III/IV materials and associated equipment will remain at LANL."


LANL director John Browne signed the letter obtained by POGO. (Photo courtesy LANL)
The letter goes on to outline agreements between Los Alamos and NNSA concerning how the move would be carried out, specifying that the materials would be transferred to the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada Test Site.

TA-18, also known as the Critical Experiments Facility, houses several nuclear burst reactors, several tons of weapons grade highly enriched uranium and plutonium, and other sensitive nuclear devices. TA-18 is one of two sites that house weapons quantity nuclear materials at Los Alamos; the other is known as Technical Area 55.

The TA-18 facility is "the only site in the entire Department of Energy complex where general purpose research and hands on training can be conducted into nuclear safeguards, criticality safety and emergency response using Category 1 level nuclear materials," according to the Los Alamos website. Among the research carried out at TA-18 are experiments aimed at guiding the efforts of first response teams - the emergency teams that would act to counter a terrorist attack using nuclear materials.

According to a fact sheet on counter terrorism research at Los Alamos produced by the DOE, "only a small amount of active material is needed to construct a potent nuclear, chemical or biological weapon."

"Eight kilograms of plutonium no larger than a grapefruit could be packaged to create an explosion the size of the blasts that ended World War II," the fact sheet states.

Located on the floor of a steep canyon, TA-18 has described by security experts as indefensible from an armed attack and as the most vulnerable nuclear weapons facility in the DOE weapons complex. The Nevada Test Site (NTS), located in an open desert valley, is considered more secure and more readily defended against attack.

In a draft press release, also obtained by POGO, the NNSA states that "the Administrator designated the NTS alternative for activities involving Security category I/II materials, which comprise most of the activities conducted at TA-18."

The remaining radioactive materials, called Category III and IV, do not comprise enough materials to make a nuclear weapon, and are not considered a target for terrorists.


Plutonium and uranium from Los Alamos could be headed to this facility, the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada Test Site. (Photo courtesy Nevada Division of Environmental Protection)
The TA-18 area has failed a number of security tests, including a mock terrorist attack staged within the last two weeks, according to sources at Los Alamos. In 1997, Army Special Forces used a Home Depot garden cart to steal more than 200 pounds of nuclear materials during a security test.

The failures mean that a real attack could allow terrorists to steal weapons grade materials from the site.

TA-18 was one of three facilities profiled in POGO's October 2001 report "U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Security at Risk," because of its vulnerability to terrorist attack. In that report, POGO recommended that vulnerable nuclear materials from TA-18 be moved to the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada Test Site, which is where the DOE is now apparently planning to ship the materials.

Asked today whether the DOE has made a final decision to move the plutonium and uranium and close the TA-18 facility, a spokeswoman for the NNSA said that while "no decision has been made," the DOE may be "moving in that direction."