U.S. watchdog agency flails Energy Dept. on labs

Alarmed lawmakers warn of terror threat

By Zachary Coile
Chronicle Washington Bureau
Wednesday, June 25, 2003

A new government report that criticizes the Energy Department for lax oversight of security at its nuclear weapons plants and national labs -- including the Bay Area's Lawrence Livermore lab -- prompted lawmakers Tuesday to warn the sites could be vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

The report, released Tuesday, spurred an immediate call by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham for an overhaul of security at the labs. Abraham said the review will address a series of recent security lapses, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory's failure to find two missing vials of plutonium.

"The Department of Energy views security as the critical responsibility of the national laboratories, and we treat any lapse or failure as significant," Abraham said in a statement.

The call for a sweeping security review came as Sandia National Laboratories, a nuclear weapons engineering lab in New Mexico, announced a management shakeup following several security failures -- including reports of guards napping on duty, misplaced security keys and a van stolen off the property and driven through a perimeter fence.

Officials at Sandia, which is run by Lockheed Martin, said the lab's vice president for national security and arms control, Dave Nokes, will retire immediately, and a top official who oversees systems assessment, Patricia Gingrich, has been reassigned.

The management shakeup at Sandia and the report by the General Accounting Office raise new questions about the Energy Department's oversight of the weapons labs, which guard state secrets and nuclear materials.

But Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the powerful senator whose committee oversees the labs, warned that the rush by Congress and Energy Department officials to criticize the labs' failings and call for more oversight may create a bigger problem -- distracting scientists from their focus on technological advances.

"We've imposed so many mandates, policies and procedures that, today, the greatest minds in our country spend more time pushing paper than pushing the frontiers of human knowledge," Domenici said after a Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing about the labs.

Congress Split On What To Do

Domenici's comments, which were echoed at the Senate hearing by current and former lab officials, suggest a widening rift on Capitol Hill over how to deal with management problems at the labs, with some lawmakers calling for greater government oversight and others urging the Energy Department to give lab managers more autonomy to fix the problems themselves.

The outcome of the debate is critical to the University of California, which operates three national labs, the facilities at Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley and Los Alamos. Abraham announced in April that UC would have to compete for the Los Alamos contract when it expires in 2005, and there is growing speculation the Livermore contract may also be put out to bid.

However, the security woes at Sandia may actually bode well for UC. Sandia is often cited as an example of how private contractors do a better job of managing labs, but Lockheed Martin's shakeup suggests that private firms are not immune from security problems.

Assessments Lacking

The report released Tuesday by the GAO found that the National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency within the Energy Department that oversees four nuclear weapons production sites and three weapons labs, had failed to do rigorous annual assessments -- required by DOE policy -- to ensure the facilities can protect supplies of plutonium and enriched uranium against theft or sabotage by terrorists.

The report's authors analyzed 43 "corrective action plans" produced by managers of the labs and weapons production sites between 1999 and 2002, and found that more than half lacked a detailed analysis of the root causes that led to security deficiencies.

"Neither the Department of Energy nor the NNSA can yet provide reasonable assurance weapons-grade material is protected against a determined, well-trained adversarial force willing to die in a nuclear detonation or radiological dispersion," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who chaired Tuesday's House hearing.

The GAO's findings were underscored by several high-profile security lapses at the weapons labs. In one recent incident, a thief took a van belonging to a maintenance worker from a classified area of the Sandia lab and fled the site without being stopped by security guards. The van crashed through one of the lab's fences and was later found abandoned in a department store parking lot. The incident is under investigation.

UC's two weapons labs have also had recent security lapses. Los Alamos officials acknowledged last week they were unable to locate two missing vials of plutonium oxide, a highly carcinogenic substance that can be used in a so-called dirty bomb. And Lawrence Livermore has had to acknowledge that employees lost a set of keys and an electronic keycard guarding access to sensitive areas.

UC officials insist the incidents have not compromised security. "We are confident that our laboratories and the nuclear stockpile are secure," said UC spokesman Chris Harrington.

NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks testified he was troubled by the pattern of recent security incidents, and pledged to take immediate steps to correct the problem, including bolstering security audits and creating two new panels of security experts to help the agency improve.

Brooks insisted that NNSA has improved security since the Sept. 11 attacks, and the labs are not an easy target for terrorists.

But critics, including the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, cite figures showing that in simulated tests of security at NNSA sites, mock terrorists have been able to succeed more than half the time in breaking in and stealing quantities of nuclear material.

"We still aren't protecting our nuclear materials against the real terrorist threat and it's going to take serious congressional oversight to make sure it happens," said Danielle Brian, POGO's executive director.