The Department of Energy is failing to secure bomb-grade nuclear materials located at U.S. facilities, according to two reports obtained by POGO. Less than half of eleven nuclear weapons sites will have enough security to defend against what is considered a realistic threat of a terrorist attack by the deadline of 2008.
An unreleased briefing from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that "sites will be at greater risk" until the new security is put in place.
The reports concern what is called the "Design Basis Threat" (DBT), which are security standards developed based upon government intelligence assessments. The DBT is classified and includes factors such as the number of attackers, the weapons they might use, and circumstances under which an attack would take place.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the DBT was significantly revised and "has undergone substantial changes in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007," according to the GAO. DOE has currently fallen behind on implementing the 2005 DBT. Plans to implement upgrades to the DBT can costs hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars as new security personnel are hired or the government invests in technology upgrades.
POGO, numerous government reports, and the Congress have urged the DOE to shrink the number of sites which contain nuclear weapons materials in order to avoid having to invest billions of dollars in security upgrades. One POGO report estimated that shrinking the number of nuclear sites in half could save $3 billion (U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Homeland Security Opportunities).
However, bureaucratic inaction and protectionism at DOE and its sites has thwarted progress forward. Of all the nuclear sites scattered nationwide, only one site to date has been de-inventoried of its nuclear materials, the infamous TA-18 at Los Alamos National Laboratory where mock attackers regularly succeeded in stealing or "blowing up" materials in simulated tests.
In response to budgetary pressures posed by the excessive security costs that would result from the 2005 DBT, the DOE responded by watering down security requirements. Insiders who suggested that DOE consolidate its materials to fewer sites in order to save money were ignored according to internal emails. According to POGO's 2006 report:
On November 30, 2005, the Secretary [of Energy] lowered the security requirements, reverting to a security posture closer to the 2003 DBT. An exception was that Pantex, which houses assembled nuclear warheads and SNM [Special Nuclear Material], and the Office of Security Transportation, which transports assembled nuclear weapons and SNM, would stay at the far more robust 2004 DBT level. For the other sites, including the sites with a high IND [Improvised Nuclear Device] risk, the number of adversaries were reduced by approximately 25%. The sites are supposed to implement the new 2005 requirements by 2008 – again, almost seven years after 9/11. It is important to note that, according to government investigators interviewed by POGO, the Russian DBT standards to protect their nuclear materials are more robust than even the most robust U.S. 2004 DBT. (U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory At High Risk)
Department of Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman's letter to Representative David Hobson, Chairmand, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives, July 14, 2006.
GAO Analysis of Department of Energy Report to the Congress on Implementing the 2005 Design Basis Threat, Briefing for the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, July 27, 2007.
Security Upgrades at Several Nuclear Sites Are Lagging, Auditors Find, New York Times, by Matthew Wald, October 29, 2007.