Skip to Main Content
Project on Government Oversight

POGO letter to Dr. Everet H. Beckner, Deputy Administrator for Defense Program, NNSA, DOE regarding security and safety issues at LANL

Dr. Everet H. Beckner
Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs
National Nuclear Security Administration
Department of Energy
Washington, DC 20505

Via Facsimile: (202) 586-5670

Dear Dr. Beckner,

Thank you for your letter of October 30, 2002 on our continuing mutual concern over the security and de-inventorying effort at TA-18. We share your concern about the large amount (multiple metric tons) of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) at that site, in the context of the threat of terrorist activities involving nuclear detonation scenarios with the material stored at TA-18. We explained our concerns about Improvised Nuclear Devices (IND) in our October 2001 report, "U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Security at Risk," as well as in my September 2002 testimony before the House National Security Subcommittee, "Combatting Terrorism: Preventing Nuclear Terrorism." In fact, in an October 2000 force-on-force test at TA-18, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, an IND would have been created by the mock terrorists in minutes.

As you well know from elementary physics, HEU is easy for a suicidal terrorist to assemble into a configuration which could result in a nuclear yield, as it has a very low neutron background and hence a low preinitiation probability during assembly. This is further confirmed by Nobel Prize winners such as Luis Alvarez, as well as in Georges Charpak and Richard Garwin's 2001 book "Megawatts and Megatons," where they state:

"Solutions of uranium cannot result in nuclear explosions that cause damage by blast or by very large amounts of radiation. On the other hand, careless handling of substantial amounts of high-enriched metal could lead to a large-scale nuclear explosion, since the neutron background from this material is so low that full assembly of a critical mass might occur even without the use of propellant or explosive." (p. 197)

We understand that there is another nuclear material that poses similar risks (I do not know if this isotope is present at TA-18 or where else it may be in the DOE complex). These facts, combined with the documented security vulnerabilities of the TA-18 site, reinforces the need for timely action in the movement of this material to a more secure site. We believe that the delay in movement of this material is another manifestation of the gross mismanagement of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

While carefully considering the letter signed on your behalf, I was surprised that it mimicked the same excuses raised by LANL to delay the move of the special nuclear materials from the site. We have been informed that your office received a briefing before Christmas by Bechtel and others on the engineering configuration at the Nevada Test Site/DAF for the TA-18 move. We understand that this was virtually the same briefing that was delivered to DOE Headquarters in December 1999. This does not represent much progress. (You may want to check to see if they were paid twice for the same briefing.) Again, as we suggested to you in October, you have assigned this high-priority project to DOE and LANL management personnel who do not believe there is any urgency to this effort and who have demonstrated a singular talent for mismanagement.

Now there is a delay in preparations for the move because of a funding problem, allegedly because the FY 03 Appropriations bill has not yet been passed. It appears LANL is trying to pretend they didn't hear the urgency with which you directed them to de-inventory TA-18 – and are avoiding shifting the necessary funds from the nearly $2 billion in federal funds they receive annually.

As further evidence that LANL does as it pleases, as you know it was recently discovered by the DOE Los Alamos Area Office that LANL had built, commissioned, and operated a nuclear Category 2 facility in 1996 near the TA-55 Plutonium Facility (PF 185) without the required authorization of the Secretary of Energy. As a result, there was no required safety analysis performed in the intervening six years, and controls for nuclear safety required for the protection of the workers, environment, and the public were not in place to prevent the airborne release of plutonium in a nuclear accident. This led to University of California being found in violation of the Price Anderson Act, although their fine of $220,000 was waived as they are a non-profit corporation. It has never been made clear to the public what level of safety and security risk was present or how much plutonium was being stored in this unauthorized tin-metal butler building.

It is interesting to note that LANL found the money in their approximate $2 billion budget to build, commission, and operate an unauthorized a hazardous nuclear facility, but can't find the money to even begin to execute your orders to de-inventory TA-18.

The discovery of LANL's unaccountable actions resulted in what appears to be a rerun of an old movie. What happened to the Department's Safety Director for the site who discovered and apparently refused to approve five years of unsecured, illegally stored plutonium ex post facto? Two weeks after Ambassador Brooks wrote a stinging letter to LANL chastising them for this display, the DOE Safety Director was stripped of his safety oversight duties without explanation. Unless he is put back on the job, the Department will have guaranteed he cannot oversee compliance with TA-18 and the other accumulated, incomplete Documented Safety Reports required to be completed by April. This latest incident seems to be a grade-B movie sequel to LANL's firing of the two investigators who recently discovered the financial fraud at the lab.

We are beginning to pursue investigations into nuclear safety at LANL and will continue our investigations of inadequate security, fraud and whistleblower retaliation. I sincerely hope you will take these issues to heart and assert your leadership again as you did when you ordered the materials moved from TA-18 last year.

Sincerely,


Danielle Brian
Executive Director


Attachments

Letter to Dr. John Browne, Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory from Linton F. Brooks, Acting Administrator

Memo to Timothy George NMT Division Director, LANL from Christopher M. Steele, Senior Authorization Basis Manager

DOE/NNSA Press Release Cites Los Alamos National Laboratory for Price Anderson Violations

 

Related Work