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Congress Moves to Consolidate Nuclear Weapons Materials; Report: Cutting Sites in Half Could Save $3 Billion

May 19, 2005 

 

Consolidating and shrinking the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile would save $3 billion and also improve protections against possible terrorist attacks, according to a new study issued today by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). Yesterday, the House Committee on Appropriations moved the goal of consolidation forward by approving additional funding for consolidation in the Department of Energy's FY 2006 appropriations bill.

Thirteen sites house hundreds of metric tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium in quantities enough to make nuclear bombs. In 2004, security upgrades were announced that will require eleven of the sites to protect against more than triple the number of armed attackers with more lethal weapons than pre-9/11 standards. As a result, the DOE security costs will increase dramatically.

Security experts' greatest concern is that a suicidal terrorist group would reach its target at one of the facilities and, in an extremely short time, trigger a nuclear detonation on site that would be of a magnitude close to that which devastated Hiroshima. The ease with which terrorists could achieve this scenario was a primary motivation for the DOE's decision to significanly increase requirements at nuclear weapons facilities last year.

POGO's interviews with experts throughout the nuclear weapons complex have led to the conclusion that at least six sites no longer need to house nuclear materials, which should be moved to other locations in the complex. In addition, efforts to immobilize or downblend excess nuclear materials would also help save taxpayer dollars.

Topping the list of sites that should be immediately de-inventoried is Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory located outside San Francisco, California. Department officials have confirmed POGO's assertion that weapons protecting Livermore are not as lethal as they should be due to encroaching neighborhoods surrounding the facility, making it more vulnerable to an attack.

Other sites needing to be immediately de-inventoried include:

  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee which has almost no security to protect one thousand cans of Uranium-233, an attractive material for terrorists intent on building an improvised nuclear device.

  • Sandia National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory Technical Area 18 in New Mexico, which have serious safety or security risks that merit speeding up existing relocation plans. Internal memos show that Los Alamos is stalling the plan to de-inventory TA-18, the most vulnerable site in the complex.

  • Hanford Reservation in Washington which failed a security exercise after 9/11 and has no plan for relocating plutonium from the Los Alamos Molten Plutonium Reactor Experiment.

Two commercially-owned nuclear sites have fallen off the radar screen of government security officials -- Nuclear Fuel Services in Tennessee and the Nuclear Products Division of BWXT in Virginia. Although these sites contain weapons grade nuclear materials, they have not been required to meet the security standards set for similar facilities by the Department of Energy. Instead they are overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which has lower standards. Security has not been tested at one of these sites since 1998.

Another "forgotten" site, until POGO's investigation, is an underground building at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). The building would fulfill most needs for underground storage for the complex, yet was slated to be destroyed until recently. Ironically, INEEL was the only site in the nuclear complex that was meeting its schedule for de-inventorying -- sending its materials across the country to Savannah River in South Carolina even though it could house the materials itself. The Device Assembly Facility in Nevada is a second site that is appropriate to safely store nuclear materials.

Weapons grade nuclear materials at Argonne West National Laboratory in Idaho and Savannah River in South Carolina should eventually be relocated as well. POGO also recommends that on-site storage be improved at the Y-12 Facility at Oak Ridge in Tennessee and the Pantex Plant in Texas, and that excess plutonium and uranium should be immobilized or downblended in order to make them less attractive to terrorists. An additional 100 metric tons of highly-enriched uranium should be downblended on top of the 174 metric tons currently slated.

The report released today is the result of a one-year investigation by POGO to assess the impact of new security requirements and determine how best to reconfigure security of the nation's nuclear materials. Since 2001, POGO has worked with hundreds of security experts, whistleblowers, and government insiders to improve security of DOE's nuclear weapons facilities. POGO's last study helped to encourage former Energy Secretary Abraham to announce a comprehensive security initiative in 2004.

DOCUMENTS:

POGO's report can be viewed here.

GRAPHICS:
(note these are large, high resolution documents)

Current Sites where nuclear materials are stored.

POGO's recommendations map (color).

 


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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