Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Testimony of Danielle Brian, POGO Executive Director : Preventing Nuclear Terrorism before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs, and International Relations, Committee on Government Reform

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has spent the last 18 months investigating the adequacy of security at U.S. nuclear weapons production facilities, National Labs, and transportation of weapons and Special Nuclear Material, as well as most recently the security at U.S. nuclear power plants. POGO takes no position on nuclear power. In early 2001, POGO began its first investigation into nuclear security at the Department Of Energy (DOE) after more than a dozen high-level departmental security experts came forward with concerns regarding inadequate security at the DOE's nuclear weapons facilities.

Ten major DOE sites have weapons-grade plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in sufficient quantities to make a nuclear device, even though most of them have not had a national defense mission since the end of the Cold War. Several of these sites are located near major metropolitan areas including the Bay area of Northern California; Denver, Colorado; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Knoxville, Tennessee. In addition, the DOE Transportation Safety Division regularly moves weapons-grade nuclear materials and nuclear weapons between facilities across the country.

According to experts who have conducted DOE security tests in the past, the government fails to protect against these attacks more than 50% of the time -- although the exact figure is classified. For example, in a test at the Rocky Flats nuclear production facility, Navy SEALs successfully "stole" enough material to make multiple nuclear weapons. In a test at a Los Alamos facility, the "terrorists" had enough time to construct an Improvised Nuclear Device. In addition, the theft of nuclear secrets remains as possible today as it was several years ago before the controversy over the downloading of classified information at Los Alamos.

Just prior to September 11, 2001, POGO completed that investigation, concluding that the nation's ten nuclear weapons facilities, which house nearly 1,000 tons of weapons-grade plutonium and highly-enriched uranium, and the transportation system for weapons and nuclear materials regularly fail to protect this material during mock terrorist attacks. The results of that investigation were issued in the POGO report "U. S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Security at Risk."

Because of our work on DOE nuclear weapons facilities, several current and former guards from commercial nuclear power plants began contacting POGO in early 2002 with similar concerns about inadequate security at the nation's nuclear power plants regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). POGO then expanded its investigation, randomly contacting guards at additional facilities.

There are 65 commercial nuclear power plants in 31 states operating 103 reactors. These plants generate about 20% of the nation's electricity. There are also 12 decommissioning reactors in the nation. While these reactors no longer produce electricity, they still have tons of radioactive spent nuclear fuel which remains stored in spent fuel pools and casks. Spent fuel pools are where the spent fuel rods are removed from reactors and placed in 45 foot deep pools of water for temporary storage.

In all, POGO interviewed 24 guards protecting more than one in five, or 23%, of the total reactors nationwide. In September 2002, POGO issued "Nuclear Power Plant Security: Voices from Inside the Fences." According to interviews conducted for that report, we found that security guards at only one out of four nuclear power plants are confident their plant could defeat a terrorist attack. The guards say morale is very low and that they are under-equipped, under-manned, under-trained and underpaid. Since the release of that report, we have heard from numerous additional guards, some from plants we hadn't previously investigated. They have uniformly agreed with the conclusions in the POGO report.

I want to single out Representative Markey and commend him and his staff for their tenacious oversight of both DOE and NRC and their handling of security at our domestic nuclear facilities. I also want to commend Chairman Shays for his request for a GAO investigation of security at DOE sites, and for holding this - the first open oversight hearing on nuclear security in many years.

I understand that this hearing is focused on the theft of Special Nuclear Material or theft of a nuclear weapon. If a terrorist group were successful in stealing a U.S. nuclear weapon from a Department Of Defense (DOD) or DOE facility, it would be extraordinarily difficult to detonate it because of the codes and self-disabling devices designed to frustrate an unauthorized person from triggering a detonation. However, weapons grade material stolen from a DOE facility could be used by a terrorist group to either fabricate a crude nuclear weapon or create a "dirty bomb." This is not as far-fetched as some might believe. In fact, in full-scope mock terrorist attack tests performed by the government at DOE, half the time mock terrorists are successful in breaking in, stealing significant quantities of Special Nuclear Material and leaving the site.

But theft requires that the terrorists get into a facility and back out with the material. What we have found in our investigations is that a suicidal terrorist wouldn't have to work that hard.

Instead, a successful suicidal terrorist attack at several of our DOE weapons facilities could result in a sizeable nuclear detonation at the facility itself. A terrorist group does not have to steal nuclear material, create a nuclear device, transport it to the United States, and detonate it in a major city. They could simply gain access to the material at a U.S. nuclear facility - some of which are near large metropolitan areas - and tests have shown accomplish the same outcome. This type of homemade bomb is called an Improvised Nuclear Device, or IND. Such a detonation can be created by using conventional explosives brought into the facility in a backpack and combined with particular kinds of Special Nuclear Materials stored at these sites.

For example, in October 2000, there was a mock attack test of the security at Technical Area-18, a facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory that contains many tons of Special Nuclear Material. The mock terrorists successfully entered a facility, the guard force could not get them out, and they would have had time to create a sizeable nuclear detonation. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held important hearings on this threat in March of this year.

In addition to the possibility of an IND, there are a number of DOE sites as well as commercial nuclear reactors, where suicidal terrorists could accomplish radiological sabotage. Again, the suicidal terrorists would only have to get into the facility - they don't have to get out. They would simply need to create an explosion, that while not a detonation, would disperse radiation over a wide and in a number of cases heavily-populated area. Nuclear materials at DOE sites, as well as many spent fuel pools at commercial nuclear plants, are not stored inside "hardened" containment. As a result, populations cannot be even nominally protected from fallout caused by radiological sabotage.

While POGO has not investigated security of deployed nuclear weapons at DOD facilities, I believe it is appropriate to alert members of this committee of a letter we obtained. A Lt. Colonel who is the Branch Chief of Weapons Systems Security for an Air Force Command was so concerned about the state of nuclear security of our deployed nuclear weapons post 9-11 and the misleading testimony provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee by DOD personnel, that he wrote twice to 26 Members of Congress and the Armed Services Committees. In an extraordinary act of bravery, he included his name, home and office phone numbers. To this day, no one from Congress has contacted him.

In early 2001, the Secretary of Defense established the Scowcroft Commission, or "End-to-End Review," to investigate security of the government's nuclear assets at both DOE and DOD. POGO briefed various groups associated with this review, including the Nuclear Command and Control Staff. The Commission's report was completed in March 2002, but not briefed to the Secretary's staff until August. Sources who worked on the report have told POGO that they are concerned that during the summer the report was substantially watered down in the final stages and no longer reflects the performance test results at nuclear sites. Six months ago POGO asked General Scowcroft for a declassified version of this report; it remains Top Secret.

As you know, both the U.S. and Russia are awash in excess Special Nuclear Materials, plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU). The U.S. has not only encouraged, but has aided Russia in blending down its excess HEU to a low-enriched composition so that it would be less attractive to terrorists. The U.S. taxpayers have also financed the construction of underground storage facilities in Russia for excess nuclear materials. Yet, I find it extraordinary that we do not abide by the same standards here in the United States. In this country, we have hundreds of tons of highly-enriched uranium stored at Oak Ridge Tennessee's Y-12 plant in decaying, 50-year-old buildings (some of which were wooden until recently) - it is not blended down and is not underground where it could be better and more economically protected. We have some of the best protected underground facilities in the world designed for storage of weapons or nuclear materials that are not being used.

Currently, much of this excess weapons-grade uranium in Tennessee, along with the excess plutonium pits housed at Pantex in Amarillo, Texas, are being stored for a "war reserve." The ill-conceived plan is to transport these old nuclear weapons components across the country and marry them back together during a nuclear attack in the case that we run out of our existing nuclear weapons.

Over 50 tons of our plutonium have already been declared excess and could be immobilized - glassified and surrounded with a radiation shield so that it would be less attractive for theft. Instead of moving ahead with this plan, however, the U.S. has decided to bet on an unproven technology of turning this excess plutonium into reactor fuel called MOX, which will still result in the creation of more plutonium.

POGO has recommended numerous specific improvements that should be made by both DOE and NRC to significantly upgrade security at U.S. nuclear facilities. In a broader sense, however, the most important improvement that should be made is to make domestic nuclear assets less available to terrorists. At DOE, this could be accomplished by consolidating weapons grade nuclear materials at fewer strategic underground facilities. Another basic improvement would be to shift the security posture from tactics that "contain" terrorists inside the facility until outside help arrives an hour or more after loss of the facility, to "denying" their access in the first place. To his credit, General John Gordon, formerly Administrator of the DOE National Nuclear Security Administration, ordered all DOE Category I and II sites to upgrade security to a "denial" posture. The problem is, many of these facilities can't do it - either due to lack of resources, geographic layout, or both. Fortunately, in one egregious case - Technical Area 18 at Los Alamos - the DOE is finally going to move nuclear materials out of that facility to underground storage because it is impossible to defend. However, this is only one of several such DOE sites.

In the case of commercial nuclear reactors, currently the security guards are simply required to try to hold off terrorists and call for help from outside responders. Tabletop exercises only recently being initiated have also found response timelines to take one to two hours. Mock attack tests have found that a successful terrorist attack to gain access to key security areas lasts from three to ten minutes. The NRC must upgrade its requirements of nuclear plants to expect the guards on site to be capable of accomplishing a "denial" posture - and preventing the terrorists from getting into key facilities in the first place.

It isn't a surprise to us, and I suspect not to members of this committee either, that the officials at the agencies that are responsible for allowing this inadequate security posture refuse to face reality, by taking a lenient view of testing results, or are at times even hostile to improving the situation. In the case of the DOE, in fact, there is a serious effort afoot to maintain the status quo by clinging to the claim that the old and failed security postures are adequate. The NRC has made such unimpressive improvements as finally requiring the security guards to carry their guns, and protecting commercial reactors against truck bombs that are smaller than those used against U.S. facilities both domestically and abroad. We welcome your oversight of these agencies - nothing will improve without such Congressional involvement.