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Project on Government Oversight

POGO Letter to DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham regarding security at nuclear weapons complex

Secretary Spencer Abraham
U.S. Department of Energy
1000 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20585-0701

Dear Secretary Abraham,

We are writing to draw your attention to the fact that officials at the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have recently made decisions that undermine the spirit, if not the letter, of your May announcement to improve security at the nation's nuclear weapons complex.

As you know, the Department of Energy has halted research for the next several months at the Los Alamos National Laboratory because of security fiascos including missing disks containing classified information. We understand that, in the last two weeks, the University of California, which manages Los Alamos, has proposed accelerating the plan to move weapons grade nuclear materials (known as Special Nuclear Materials) from Technical Area-18 (TA-18) by making it an immediate priority. The University, normally the target of complaints from NNSA about security at the Lab, should be congratulated for its wisdom in making this proposal. Unfortunately, the Department of Energy's NNSA has refused the proposal to fast-track the plan to de-inventory TA-18.

Before the Los Alamos stand down, the NNSA's schedule for the TA-18 move remained unnecessarily drawn out. Now there is a unique opportunity to bypass National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) schedule, as well as the current schedule for starting up low-priority work at Los Alamos, and make the TA-18 move an immediate priority.

Situated at the bottom of an indefensible canyon, TA-18 contains tons of nuclear materials and has failed numerous security tests, including tests conducted since 9/11. This past March, you ordered the removal of all the weapons grade nuclear materials from TA-18 within 18 months. In May you reaffirmed your decision.

However, officials in NNSA have been dragging their feet on the TA-18 move. In response to the University's plan, NNSA is still using the tired excuses that they do not have enough certified containers, adequate transportation assets, or containers for outsized pieces of Special Nuclear Materials. Those same excuses were used in 2000 to derail the TA-18 move - and they are simply not true. As you know, in 2000, then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson ordered the removal all Category I and II Special Nuclear Materials out of TA-18 by 2004. Turf battles and bureaucratic protectionism undermined the plan.

Those same forces are at work today. One of NNSA's top officials, Everet Beckner, wrote to us in May, after your speech, informing us that only 50 percent of the Special Nuclear Materials would be removed over 18 months beginning in September. In addition, Beckner wrote that the final 50 percent would not be removed for "several years." Given the troubled history of agency stonewalling and the skillful bureaucratic interests working to thwart the plan, I strongly suspect the move will never be completed under this scenario. Indeed, the NNSA point person on this issue since 2000, Tracy Bishop, wrote in an email six months ago that the plan to de-inventory TA-18 might be dragged out until 2015.

Under the work stand down and the schedule for starting up low-priority work at Los Alamos, DOE now has a unique window of opportunity to finish the job. Under this plan, DOE could remove TA-18's weapons grade nuclear materials by the end of the year. At the same time, the move would not hamper any research, since it will be frozen for at least another two months.

Thank you for your continued attention to these important homeland security concerns.

Sincerely,

Danielle Brian
Executive Director

CC:
Deputy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow, Department of Energy Safety and Security Performance Assurance Director Glenn Podonsky, Department of Energy Chairman Joe Barton, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Christopher Shays, House National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson, House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee
 

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