The Department of Energy (DOE) maintains its stockpile of Special Nuclear Materials (SNM) at 13 laboratories and facilities nationwide. Many of these sites store materials in World War II- and 1950s-era buildings that were never designed to deter modern-day terrorist assaults. Moreover, many of these sites no longer need Special Nuclear Materials to fulfill a national security mission, but store them at great cost and risk.
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, create an improvised nuclear bomb on site. It is only now becoming known outside DOE how easily this could be accomplished: using a critical mass (about 100 pounds) of highly-enriched uranium, a terrorist could trigger a detonation of a magnitude close to that which devastated Hiroshima. One site alone stores 400 metric tons of this material. The possibility of this scenario was a primary motivation for the DOE's decision to significantly increase security requirements at nuclear weapons facilities last year.
Starting in 2008, security forces at facilities storing Special Nuclear Materials must be able to repel an assault by more than three times the number of attackers they had to be prepared for prior to 9/11, involving far more lethal weapons and truck bombs. The increased requirements will place a heavy financial burden on the American taxpayer at a time of fiscal constraint. While increased security is unquestionably necessary, some changes to the current configuration of the nuclear weapons complex could actually make it more secure for less money.
In consultation with security experts throughout the federal government, the Project On Government Oversight conducted an investigation to determine how nuclear weapons sites could best meet the new security requirements while also lessening the financial impact of improvements. The results of this investigation have found that by disposing of excess nuclear materials and by consolidating the remaining materials to fewer and more easily-defended locations, the government could save nearly three billion dollars over three years while also better protecting the public from terrorist threats.
Sites that Should Be De-Inventoried Immediately
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Department officials admit that weapons being used to protect Livermore are not as lethal as those required at other nuclear facilities. This is because houses have now been built across the street from the Lab, some of which are only 800 yards from the building storing plutonium. Without adequate protection, a possible nuclear incident at Livermore puts in danger the population of seven million residents living within 50 miles of the Lab. POGO recommends removing the site's weapons-grade nuclear materials. SAVINGS: $375-$385 million
Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Oak Ridge stores one thousand cans of Uranium-233, a material that is just as potent and dangerous as highly-enriched uranium for making an improvised nuclear bomb. Despite this, the site does not have basic security measures in place, including fences and SWAT-capable protective forces. In 2004, the Lab failed a self-assessment security test – with "attackers" successfully breaching security at the Lab and "killing" the entire protective force in 90 seconds. The U-233 should be moved immediately to Y-12 where it can be appropriately secured. Priority attention needs to be paid to whether or not medical isotopes (i.e. Thorium) can be extracted economically from Uranium-233 and, if so, commit to accomplishing this immediately. Once resolved either way, the U-233 should be downblended as quickly as possible. SAVINGS: $290 million
Los Alamos National Laboratory's Technical Area 18. Widely recognized as the most vulnerable site in the nuclear weapons complex, TA-18 is scheduled to be de-inventoried of weapons-grade nuclear materials by the end of 2005. However, LANL is pushing to continue activities at TA-18, further postponing the move at least six months. Furthermore, some of the surplus material will be stored at the Los Alamos ' Technical Area 55 until 2008. Instead, POGO recommends that all material be moved to the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada Test Site by the end of FY2005. SAVINGS: $370 million
Sandia National Laboratory. DOE planned to de-inventory Sandia of weapons-grade materials by 2007. However, in recent months, safety problems have arisen which are likely irreconcilable and place the public at great risk. Furthermore, Sandia's burst reactor experiments can be conducted at other facilities. As a result, POGO recommends that Sandia be immediately de-inventoried. SAVINGS: $275 million
Hanford Reservation. Hanford has retained a large quantity of plutonium that is not scheduled to be moved until 2007, and some from the Los Alamos Molten Plutonium Reactor Experiment for which there are no plans for removal or disposition at all. This is of particular concern, as Hanford failed a force-on-force exercise after 9/11. POGO recommends the remaining weapons-grade plutonium be moved to Savannah River immediately. SAVINGS: $295 million
Sites with Inadequate Security Standards
Nuclear Fuel Services and the Nuclear Products Division of BWXT. These are commercially-operated facilities that provide nuclear fuel for the Office of Naval Reactors. Unfortunately, although DOE materials are stored at these sites, they are secured and tested under the much lower standards of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Security has not been tested by the government since 1998 at Nuclear Fuel Services. POGO recommends that both sites have the same security requirements as other sites storing weapons-grade nuclear materials and that oversight be moved to the DOE. COST: $180 million each site, $360 million total
On-Site Consolidation Opportunities
Y-12 Facility at Oak Ridge. This plant, located outside Knoxville, Tennessee, is home to the nation's stockpile of highly-enriched uranium (HEU), the most attractive material for terrorists who want to create an improvised nuclear explosion. The current plan is to build two above-ground facilities, despite concerns that the design is less secure and more expensive than one underground facility. POGO recommends consolidating weapons-grade materials to a single underground or bermed (covered with earth) facility at Y-12; accelerate the plan to downblend 174 metric tons of excess HEU; and consider declaring an additional 100 metric tons of HEU excess and available for downblending to make it less attractive to terrorists. SAVINGS: $1.2-1.67 billion
Pantex Plant. Pantex stores thousands of plutonium pits in World War II-era bunkers located at the end of an Amarillo airport runway, creating an optimal terrorist target. Since these pits will never be used, they should be immobilized so that they are no longer available to suicidal terrorists. In the mean time, plutonium should be better secured at a location away from the airport or in an underground facility. SAVINGS: $140 million
Unused Secure Storage Sites
Device Assembly Facility (DAF) at the Nevada Test Site. Special Nuclear Materials from the notorious Los Alamos TA-18 are now being shipped to the DAF, the most secure storage facility in the country. However, DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration and security contractor Wackenhut have not increased security in preparation for these shipments. As a result, the site failed a mock terrorist test in 2004. POGO recommends increasing the size of the protective force, and improving training and defensive strategy at the site. COST: $90 million
Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL). INEEL is one of only two facilities in the entire nuclear weapons complex to actually have an appropriately-secure underground repository for Special Nuclear Materials. The great irony is that this is the only site in the complex expected to meet its schedule for de-inventorying (by Summer 2005). In fact, the facility was slated for "rubblization" until only recently, when government officials realized this facility might fulfill most needs for underground storage for the complex. POGO recommends preparing the underground facility to store plutonium and highly-enriched uranium. A relatively modest investment in this facility would pay for itself in six years. COST: $150 million
Facilities that Should Ultimately Be De-Inventoried
Argonne National Laboratory, West. Argonne West is building a new facility to store plutonium for a NASA space program. The Lab also stores more than nine tons of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium, although it has no weapons-related need for this material. Two years ago, the Lab's security was found to be unsatisfactory, and it continues to have trouble developing updated security plans. POGO recommends de-inventorying Argonne West and moving the NASA-related materials to an existing building at the Idaho National Lab (formerly INEEL). SAVINGS: $75 million
Savannah River Site. Savannah River is home to the nation's stockpile of plutonium. Although a plan had been under way to consolidate materials to one building, DOE has proposed several new facilities to house plutonium, including one that would be used to convert plutonium into nuclear power plant fuel. POGO recommends that DOE consider relocating any proposed new facilities to Pantex, and that Savannah River ultimately be de-inventoried by moving plutonium to one of the secure storage sites at the Idaho National Lab or the Nevada Test Site. In addition, the amount of plutonium declared excess should be more than doubled and made unusable by terrorists by immobilizing it. SAVINGS: $460 million