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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Testimony of POGO's Danielle Brian before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations

In October, 2001, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) issued our report, "U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Security at Risk." In that report we presented extensive evidence and raised an overall alarm that the Department of Energy (DOE) was not taking security of the nations nuclear weapons facilities seriously. Since beginning our investigation, POGO has worked with over 100 insiders from the nuclear weapons complex, who are concerned at the state of security. During this time, we have been in virtual armed combat with the DOE bureaucracy. In light of the new terrorist threats our nation faces, it is extraordinary how hostile the DOE has been to suggestions that would increase security while significantly reducing costs.

In January 2004 Secretary Abraham, Deputy Secretary McSlarrow and Oversight Director Glenn Podonsky began a dialogue regarding our recommendations for security upgrades. Since then, we have been cautiously optimistic that DOE may be turning the corner. Friday's speech by the Secretary further reassured us. This is the first time a DOE Secretary has recognized and admitted the extent of the change necessary to improve security in the weapons complex.

For example, he announced reevaluating the Design Basis Threat (DBT), the security standards that facilities are required to meet. Increasing the DBT to better reflect the intelligence community's Postulated Threat is essential. This review, along with the April 5, 2004 directive requiring all sites with Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) vulnerabilities to increase their defensive posture to a "denial" strategy, will vastly improve security. An IND is an actual nuclear detonation on site, which can be accomplished within minutes by a terrorist bringing a few additional materials in a rucksack. Recently, former DOE Security Czar General Eugene Habiger stated that such a blast would be comparable to one- twentieth of the size of the Hiroshima detonation. Experts interviewed by POGO believe it would be even more devastating. In the past, the bigger concern had been to thwart the theft of nuclear materials. As a result, it was considered adequate to allow a terrorist to enter the facility but prevent him from being able to leave again. Now, the "denial" requirement means a terrorist must be prevented from entering the facility at all, given the possibility that a suicidal terrorist could detonate an Improvised Nuclear Devise. Concerns about INDs underscore the need to further consolidate Special Nuclear Materials, as a number of sites simply will not be able to meet these higher standards or afford the required upgrades.

Eliminating the burst reactor at Sandia National Laboratory and removing the highly-enriched uranium fuel core will save over $30 million per year in security costs by eliminating the need for extensive physical security. We are disappointed, however, in the timeline for this step. It shouldn't take three years, as this reactor currently is rarely used. For example, in early 2000 when DOE considered moving the reactor from Sandia, its next scheduled mission wasn't until October of 2002, 2 ½ years later.

In addition, raising the need to blend down 100 tons of HEU is one of the highlights of the Secretary's announcement. It is important to begin looking at step two in the process of improving security in the weapons complex. Step one is to consolidate the materials into fewer and more secure locations. Step two is to blend down the excess HEU and immobilize the excess plutonium so that they no longer present such an attractive target to terrorists.

We are not sanguine that the agenda outlined by Secretary Abraham will become a reality. He will need to fight the weapons complex bureaucracy, its contractors, and its handmaiden the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which wants to protect the status quo at all costs. Frankly, the NNSA has repeatedly proven itself eager to place the lab's interests over the nation's security interests.

Of course the most obvious example of this is Los Alamos National Laboratory's TA-18. In 2000, then- Secretary Bill Richardson ordered the removal of Category I and II Special Nuclear Materials from that site. Since then, the foot-dragging by NNSA and Los Alamos has been award-winning. While POGO was heartened by the April 1 announcement reaffirming the move, our hopes were dampened after meeting with the head of the nuclear weapons complex, Dr. Everet Beckner on April 16. Despite Secretary Abraham's intentions that all Category I and II Special Nuclear Materials be out of TA-18 by 2005, Dr. Beckner informed us that NNSA only intends to move 50% of it. In fact, I would like to submit for the record a document dated April 9 of this year, written by Dr. Beckner. It states, "Beginning in September 2004, NNSA will ship about 50 percent of the entire TA-18 programmatic SNM inventory to the DAF during an 18-month period."

Dr. Beckner also tried to justify the ballooning estimated cost for this move - from $100 million to over $300 million. He told us that this exponential growth was in large part a result of the requirement to produce Authorization Basis documents to move the burst reactors from Los Alamos and to operate the reactors at the Nevada Test Site. He said this paperwork requirement alone would cost $150 million. We checked with the person in the Los Alamos Area Office who is responsible for signing off on such documents: He estimated the cost to be between $1-2 million if done correctly, and as much as $6 million on the outside if it needs to be reworked. An earlier internal email, dated February 23, 2004, actually discusses DOE's intention to keep nuclear materials at TA-18 until 2011, and Los Alamos's proposal to extend the timeline to 2015. I think you get the idea. I believe the bureaucracy knowingly provides completely baseless information to Headquarters as a way of protecting the status quo. According to this email, even the former Director of Los Alamos, John Browne, stated that the lab cannot operate TA-18 "securely beyond 2010." I hope this Committee holds NNSA's feet to the fire until the TA-18 materials are permanently moved to the Nevada Test Site.

The next piece of evidence we can present that NNSA is dragging its feet concerns the building of the Highly-Enriched Uranium(HEU) Materials Facility at Y-12. Some in DOE and the Congress have identified Y-12 as the most serious security concern in the complex. Y-12 stores hundreds of tons of highly-enriched uranium, and is a prime target for terrorists who would want to create an IND within minutes. Given the obsolete infrastructure currently housing the HEU, it should come as no surprise that the Y-12 guard force has been told to cheat in order to pass security performance tests. They simply cannot protect the highly-enriched uranium in the six material access areas given the multiple targets, dilapidated infrastructure, and speed with which terrorists can reach their target.

We were pleased to see the Secretary announcing an expedited schedule for building the new facility, but our worry is - which design? The current contractor operating Y-12, BWXT, inexplicably changed a plan to build a bermed facility covered by earth on three sides and its roof, similar to the Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada Test Site, and is now planning instead to build an above-ground facility. The change in design was approved based on the contractor's estimate that it would both increase security and save money. However, in a March 19, 2004, Inspector General report about Y-12, the IG concluded that the new design for the storage facility will actually decrease security and significantly increase costs. Project costs have skyrocketed, going from an estimated $144 million in 2001 to $253 million in 2004, while security features for the facility have been seriously degraded. All the security experts we have interviewed conclude that a bermed facility would be far more secure. Immediate funding for underground storage at Y-12, and the blending down of the over 100 tons of excess HEU, should be the top priorities of the NNSA budget. Again, this would lead to significant savings in annual security costs, because only one hardened facility would need to be protected, versus the current six aging buildings.

We were pleased to see the Secretary put the de-inventorying of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory of its Special Nuclear Materials on the table. We believe these materials pose an unacceptable risk to the surrounding San Francisco Bay area community. The Livermore guard force can not protect the plutonium and highly-enriched uranium the way these materials are protected at other nuclear weapons sites. In light of the facility's vulnerabilities, POGO recommends that all weapons quantities of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium should be de-inventoried from Livermore immediately and sent to the Device Assembly Facility (DAF) at the Nevada Test Site. Any research that requires weapons quantities of SNM can easily be accomplished by flying the Livermore scientists to the DAF, only a one-hour flight away. This move would dramatically increase security while saving about $30 million in annual security costs. We have asked a number of experts on the experiments conducted at Livermore and have concluded that the missions considered critical to Stockpile Stewardship are completely redundant to those being conducted at Los Alamos.

We are concerned, however, that the decision won't be made until early next year. Particularly concerning is that just two weeks ago, before another House Committee, NNSA Administrator Brooks testified a position in direct contradiction to the Secretary's announcement. He stated, "the subcommittee has heard suggestions to eliminate special nuclear material at Lawrence Livermore. In our judgement, that would preclude our carrying out our stockpile stewardship assessments, and that's because while we can move the material someplace else, we can't move the research capabilities and processes that exist at Livermore." We are also already hearing complaints from Livermore that it is necessary for national security to keep the materials at the lab, and that in fact rather than de-inventorying, the lab needs to double the amount of plutonium housed there. This is a sign of things to come. I would suggest that these defenders of the status quo need to balance the value of the science and convenience of the scientists with the homeland security vulnerabilities posed by keeping the plutonium and highly-enriched uranium at the lab. Furthermore, I would suggest that a far more parochial interest is at play. As a former Livermore official suggested, losing the special nuclear materials raises the specter of whether Lawrence Livermore Lab needs to exist as a weapons design laboratory at all anymore. I suspect the Bay area community would be unhappy to hear that the lab is clinging to its plutonium and highly-enriched uranium as an insurance policy to justify its existence.

Still unaddressed are Argonne West and the Idaho National Lab. There is no requirement for these sites to use special nuclear materials to perform their missions. In fact, we have been told that at one of these sites, they spend more money to protect the materials than they do on their programs.

Federalizing the security forces is certainly worth considering, as it would address a number of the problems we have encountered across the complex. In the meantime, the current private security companies employing the security officers around the complex need to do a much better job in keeping their morale up by reducing overtime, increasing training, and providing adequate compensation packages.

We were also pleased to see the Department is finally going to move to a media-less computing system, which will eliminate concerns repeatedly raised by missing hard drives and computer disks.

Finally, the Secretary acknowledged that whistleblowers have been forced outside the system, often suffering retribution for telling the truth, and that there is a need for a change in the management culture. This is the third DOE Secretary I have heard say this. What can we all do to make it happen? Congress needs to pass the whistleblower protection legislation introduced by Rep. Ed Markey as a first step. It is clear that Secretaries with the best intentions can not protect whistleblowers from the wrath of an angry bureaucracy.

POGO is guardedly optimistic that Secretary Abraham and Deputy Secretary McSlarrow are sincerely concerned about the state of security at the nuclear weapons complex. However, these two officials have a limited time in office. The Office of Security and Safety Performance Assurance will be the entity left behind to oversee any improvements. Our concern is that the Office is doing important work, but currently is not given either the necessary independence or power to see this difficult job through. They will have to confront NNSA's insidious efforts to delay, delay, delay any security improvements until they fall off the radar screen. POGO recommended in our 2001 report that the Oversight Office be moved outside the DOE in order to establish real institutional independence. At the very least, Congress needs to formalize its communications with this Office, as it has with the Inspector General.

In the end, it is clear NO change will happen without you, the Congress, providing vigilant oversight. I believe it will be some of the most important work you will do.