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Project on Government Oversight




U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: DOE Waiver Puts Livermore Homes and Plutonium at Risk

March 17, 2008 


As public hearings take place across the country, the Project On Government Oversight is releasing its findings that Special Nuclear Material (SNM) can be safely removed from Livermore Lab three years sooner than the National Nuclear Security Administration timetable of 2012, saving taxpayers $160 million and eliminating a homeland security vulnerability which puts the 7 million inhabitants surrounding the Lab at risk.

Even more troubling is that POGO has learned the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has given Livermore Lab a waiver so that it does not have to meet the current security requirements devised by the intelligence community. The encroaching residential community surrounding the Lab has made it impossible to properly protect the Lab’s weapons quantities of plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore Lab), a nuclear weapons facility located in the greater metropolis of San Francisco, CA, poses the most significant security threat of any such facility in the U.S. Roughly seven million people live within a 50-mile radius of the Livermore Lab, which has approximately one ton of weapons-grade and weapons-quantity of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, DOE’s most dangerous and expensive-to-guard special nuclear material (SNM). If terrorists gained access to this material, they could detonate them, devastating the San Francisco Bay Area and inland regions—the key agricultural areas of California.

“We are very disturbed to learn that NNSA has given Livermore Lab a waiver so that it does not have to meet the current security requirements devised by the intelligence community – the 2005 Design Basis Threat (DBT),” said Ingrid Drake, POGO Investigator at POGO.

DOE has at times acknowledged the danger of special nuclear materials at Livermore Lab, but efforts to address the situation have been negated by simultaneous decisions that increase the likelihood the special nuclear material will remain at the site. In just the past three years, DOE has doubled the amount of plutonium allowed to be stored at Livermore; discarded congressional timelines to remove the material by 2012 by establishing its own timeline to “evaluate” whether the material could be removed by 2014; and pursued plans for new plutonium missions at Livermore.

Because of the proximity of businesses and residences, the protective forces at Livermore Lab were, until recently, issued far less lethal and less powerful weapons than protective forces at other sites that store the same SNM. But, faced with pressure to demonstrate that the Lab could fend off a terrorist attack, NNSA announced the deployment of the Dillon Aero M134D gun, popularly known as the Gatling gun. This enormously lethal weapon is capable of firing 4,000 rounds a minute with a military “kill-range” of one mile. Even in an accidental firing, the Lab would be spraying lethal bullets into the surrounding neighborhoods. This type of accident is not unprecedented. For example, several years ago there was an accidental firing of a mounted, high-caliber machine gun at the Y-12 Complex. The gun, similar in firepower to the Gatling guns, sprayed a building at the facility with bullets, which penetrated walls. Within that one-mile range of the Livermore Lab are two elementary schools, a pre-school, a middle school, a senior center, and athletic fields, making this weapon totally unacceptable.

“DOE has demonstrated the ability to move these materials. The Sandia National Laboratory is located in a metropolitan area—in that case, the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. In February 2008, the nuclear material was successfully removed from Sandia. The same can, and must, be accomplished at Livermore,” said Peter Stockton, POGO Senior Investigator.

Other recommendations in the report, the fourth in a series by POGO, include:

1) Immediately move the weapons-grade and weapons-quantity special nuclear material out of Livermore Lab.

A) Immediately move the plutonium that has already been declared excess at the Lab to Savannah River Site for storage and disposition.

B)  For the plutonium that has not yet been declared excess, Congress should determine whether there is a credible mission at the Lab for the material:

i.      If the plutonium is indeed required for this mission, the material should be moved to the Nevada Test Site’s Device Assembly Facility (DAF). If Livermore Lab scientists need to conduct experiments with the SNM, they could easily take the one-hour flight to the DAF as they did for years during the nuclear test program.

ii.      If Congress deems that the mission is not a national security priority, NNSA should immediately move the plutonium to the Savannah River Site for storage and disposition.

C) Because there is no national security priority for highly enriched uranium at Livermore Lab, immediately move the material to the Y-12 National Security Complex for storage and downblending.

2) When the SNM is removed from the Lab, the Gatling guns should be disassembled and transferred to a more appropriate NNSA site.

The current security situation at Livermore defies common sense.  It is time for Congress to step in and demand DOE implement an accelerated schedule to move these dangerous materials and provide peace of mind for the local residents.  

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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