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Leaked Documents: DOE to Move Nuclear Weapons Material

August 11, 2002 

 

Leaked documents provide new evidence that the Department of Energy (DOE) has decided to move bomb-grade nuclear materials, related equipment, and activities from New Mexico's Los Alamos TA-18 facility, despite repeated denials of that a decision. The plan represents the first agency effort to move nuclear materials to reduce the risk of terrorists stealing it since the September 11th attacks.

Located on the floor of a steep canyon, TA-18 has long been regarded by security experts as indefensible from an armed attack and as the most vulnerable nuclear weapons facility in the DOE weapons complex.

"This is the most sensible move DOE has made towards making the nuclear weapons complex more secure. They've become so accustomed to hiding their stupid moves, they don't realize they would be congratulated for this important step," said POGO Senior Investigator Peter Stockton.

The June 28th letter obtained by POGO states: "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." The letter goes on to outline agreements between Los Alamos and NNSA concerning how the TA-18 move will be carried out.

The letter is written by John C. Browne, Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, to Everet Beckner, Deputy Administrator of Defense Programs for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

POGO also obtained a draft NNSA press release confirming the relocation, stating, "...the Administrator designated the NTS [Nevada Test Site] alternative for activities involving Security category I/II materials, which comprise most of the activities conducted at TA-18."

The remaining Category III and IV materials combined could not be made into a nuclear weapon, and therefore would not be a target for terrorists.

POGO sources also confirm that TA-18 again failed a mock terrorist force-on-force test in the past two weeks. If the attack had been real, terrorists would have left the site with bomb-grade nuclear materials as has happened repeatedly in mock security tests at TA-18.

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. POGO has recommended that the TA-18 mission and vulnerable nuclear material be moved to the Device Assembly Facility in Nevada. The report's section on TA-18 can be viewed in POGO's report by selecting this link.

TA-18 was the site of the 1997 "garden cart" incident where Army Special Forces used a Home Depot garden cart to steal more than 200 pounds of nuclear materials. In a subsequent October 2000 incident, mock force-on-force terrorists again succeeded in gaining access to nuclear materials that would have caused a sizable nuclear detonation.

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 (TA-55 is the other) that houses weapons-quantity nuclear materials at Los Alamos National Lab.

A final page attached to the letter that POGO believes was written informally by a federal official in New Mexico states:

"Beckner wants security cat I and II out of TA-18 ASAP 9 months is unacceptable; Beckner wants months LANL is proposing multiple studies with long time periods."

Based on analysis of a work schedule proposed by LANL from 2002 to 2010, POGO believes the "9 months" may have meant to read "9 years," although it is unclear.

POGO investigates, exposes, and seeks to remedy systemic abuses of power, mismanagement, and subservience by the federal government to powerful special interests. Founded in 1981, POGO is a politically-independent, nonprofit watchdog that strives to promote a government that is accountable to the citizenry.

The Department of Energy's TA-18 Denials

On July 3, 2002, the Project On Government Oversight issued an Alert  stating that its sources confirmed the decision to move the facility's nuclear materials to the Nevada Test Site and close the facility. In response, the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration was reported making the following denials:

"However, a spokeswoman for NNSA said while DOE was mulling options for relocating TA-18's operations, no decision had been made to send nuclear materials to the Nevada Test Site. "We're looking at a range of options," said spokeswoman Lisa Cutler. 'We haven't reached a conclusion. We are getting close to the end of that process.'"
--Energy Daily, July 3, 2002

 "Lisa Cutler, a spokeswoman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said a decision is not expected for several weeks."
--Las VegasReview-Journal, July 3, 2002

 "'We are evaluating the different options as to where and whether the operations would be moved,' said Lisa Cutler, spokeswoman for the department's National Nuclear Security Administration. 'I would expect a final decision in the next few weeks.'"
--Santa Fe New Mexican, July 3, 2002

"But the National Nuclear Security Administration, which has oversight of the lab, including Technical Area 18, said no such decision has been made. 'We have not reached a final decision, and we don't anticipate making a final decision yet for a few weeks,' said NNSA spokeswoman Lisa Cutler in Washington, DC on Tuesday."
--Albuquerque Journal, July 3, 2002

 "National Nuclear Security Administration officials last week denied allegations that the agency plans to close a 62-year-old facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory that contains several nuclear reactors and tons of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium and plutonium. 'No decision has been made' on Los Alamos' TA-18 facility, said a spokeswoman for NNSA, the semiautonomous agency at the Energy Department."
--Inside Energy/with Federal Lands, July 8, 2002


Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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