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Project on Government Oversight

DOE: Broken System for Protecting Nuclear Material Could Compromise Los Alamos Operations

Related Content: Los Alamos National Lab
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February 26, 2009

In the midst of trying to account for 80 missing or stolen computers, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is now under fire for a new problem. Critical deficiencies in its system for keeping track of its huge stocks of plutonium and highly enriched uranium—enough for hundreds of nuclear weapons. According to a February 23 internal Department of Energy letter, the amount of nuclear material that LANL could not account for in January "exceeded alarm limits." While Los Alamos says there is no suspicion of theft or diversion, if it does not know where the material is, it cannot say for certain that the material has not been stolen.

DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) sent a Special Review Team earlier this month to assess Los Alamos' Material Control and Accountability (MC&A) program. The Team found inaccuracies in accounting, a lack of adherence to requirements, and that "key personnel in critical positions lacked a basic understanding of fundamental MC&A concepts." In fact, in light of the Team's findings, both government and contractor officials have recently been removed from their positions. According to the letter, if identified weaknesses remain unresolved it "would impact the ability of the facility to continue operations."

POGO met with NNSA staff yesterday, who would not talk about the issue, claiming it was classified. Yet today, Los Alamos sent out a press release on the subject. The release misleadingly states that the problem was first reported to NNSA in January, yet MC&A concerns was an issue for a greater part of last year. According to the internal DOE letter, there were MC&A "issues identified during assessments over the last year," including an on-site review in June 2008. Also, POGO had raised concerns about these MC&A problems in a September 2008 press alert.

Despite being aware of MC&A problems during the 2007-2008 performance period, DOE still granted LANL the full $1.43 million performance award fee for security, which includes “Material Control and Accountability,” as one of the areas of performance evaluated. 

"This letter shows that DOE is not afraid to use vigorous inspections for identifying potential security problems. Unfortunately, DOE did not use its power of the purse to get its contractor to quickly resolve the problem," says Peter Stockton, POGO Senior Investigator. "A sharply worded letter is a good step, but without financial penalties, improvement is much less likely."

DOE and LANL have tried to downplay the risk of stolen bomb-making material by pointing to LANL's "strong and effective physical security." However, based on the results of security tests throughout the weapons complex, including last year's debacle at Livermore Lab, POGO is concerned that the weak MC&A program at Los Alamos could be exploited by an insider and pose a serious security threat.

DOE appears focused on preventing this latest bad news from becoming publicized and sent out messages to staff warning them not to release critical information to the public. If the information was sensitive enough to pose a security concern, there is a process in place at DOE to classify the information. However, the letter is stamped "Official Use Only," which is not a classification marking but is generally used to prevent internal documents from seeing the light of day. POGO finds this objectionable, as taxpayers have a right to know what they are getting for their $2.7 billion tax dollars spent at LANL.

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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