FEDERAL PAGE/ The Administration

 The Issues
 Federal Page
 The Administration
   - First 100 Days
   - The Transition
   - Bush in Europe
   - Inauguration
 Supreme Court
 Today in Congress
 Post Series
 Columns - Cartoons
 Live Online
 Photo Galleries
Where You Live

Enter ZIP code or state abbreviation.



Debate Over Nuclear Lab Security Heats Up

_____Federal Page_____
In the Loop by Al Kamen
Federal Diary by Stephen Barr
Special Interests by Judy Sarasohn
Ideas Industry by Richard Morin and Claudia Deane
More Stories
Latest Political News
E-mail Updates
E-Mail This Article
Printer-Friendly Version
Subscribe to The Post
By Eric Pianin and Bill Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 22, 2002; Page A02

The Department of Energy privately warned White House officials in late March that it lacked the funds to adequately protect the nation's nuclear weapons research facilities shortly after the administration had offered public assurances that security was more than adequate.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, concerns have mounted among lawmakers and terrorism experts about lax security at some of these weapons facilities, prompting congressional review.

The Energy Department's chief financial officer complained in a March 28 letter that the White House budget office had rejected a request for increased funding in the current fiscal year to provide for beefed up security at government research laboratories. The letter from Bruce M. Carnes warned that DOE was at "a critical juncture" and that its safeguards and security budget were not sufficient to meet the potential terrorism challenge.

"We are disconcerted that OMB refused our security supplemental request," Carnes said in a letter to Marcus Peacock, a senior official for the Office of Management and Budget. "This isn't a tenable position for you to take, in my view."

The letter was written two months after John A. Gordon, an undersecretary of energy and the administrator of the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, publicly declared that security precautions are strong at the nuclear research laboratories and along the network used to transport nuclear materials. He said allegations that the Energy Department had lax security at its nuclear weapons facilities "are false and misleading."

Gordon was responding to warnings from Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and a watchdog group that terrorist commandos could gain access to weapons-grade nuclear material and rapidly construct and detonate nuclear weapons because of grossly inadequate security at many of the nation's nuclear weapons research sites. According to a study last year by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), federal agents posing as "commandos" in mock exercises were able to breach security at nuclear laboratories more than half the time.

Yesterday, Markey released copies of the Carnes letter and called on President Bush and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to address the security problem and explain Gordon's statements playing down security problems.

"The Administration has requested almost $8 billion for missile defense, which won't do anything to prevent suicidal terrorists from attacking nuclear facilities and blowing up dirty bombs or homemade nuclear weapons," said Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "But when DOE finally admits that security is not what it should be, OMB refuses to help."

Amy Call, an OMB spokeswoman, said that after the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress approved a $111 million supplement to the fiscal 2002 budget to enhance security at nuclear weapons laboratories. The White House is seeking an additional $665 million for lab security and related expenses in the fiscal 2003 budget, she said. The Energy Department's recent request for more money remains under review, she said, while officials conduct a comprehensive assessment of the vulnerabilities of the facilities.

At the Energy Department, spokeswoman Lisa Cutler said that the letter from Carnes does not contradict Gordon because security at the facilities remains strong.

If the funding request continues to be denied, security needs will be met, "even if we have to shift priorities from another program in the department," Cutler said. "We believe our security is adequate and strong, and that our nuclear facilities are among the most secure facilities in the world and present a formidable challenge to any terrorist organization."

The U.S. nuclear weapons facilities managed by the Energy Department hold weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium in sufficient quantities to create nuclear devices. Many are near major metropolitan areas, such as Denver and San Francisco.

"I am concerned that a group of suicidal terrorists would not bother to attempt to steal nuclear weapons materials from these sites," Markey said in his letter to Bush. "Instead they would gain access to the nuclear materials located within them by killing the security guard forces, and, once inside the facility, would construct and detonate dirty bombs or homemade nuclear bombs."

The internal administration dispute over security at the research laboratories stems from Abraham's March 14 request to OMB Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. for supplemental funding to cover both emergency responses to potential terrorist attacks and enhanced security at the facilities.

Neither OMB nor DOE officials would reveal how much additional money the Energy Department is seeking in fiscal 2002.

OMB agreed to ask Congress for additional funds for emergency responses, but it rejected the request for more money for security at the laboratories pending completion of a revision of the Design Basis Threat, a document that outlines the basis for physical security measures.

"We are not operating, and cannot operate under the pre-Sept. 11 Design Basis Threat," Carnes wrote to the OMB in March. "Until that is revised, we must operate under interim Implementing Guidance, and you have not provided resources to enable us to do so."

Earlier this month, Gordon again told reporters that government officials took a "hard look" at the safety of nuclear weapons facilities after Sept. 11 and that he was "pretty satisfied with where we are." He also reiterated his view that the sites would be difficult to strike and not highly attractive to terrorists.

2002 The Washington Post Company

Related Links

Latest Business News
Global Education Plan Gains Backing (The Washington Post, 4/22/02)

Latest Earnings Reports Leave Many Scratching Their Heads (The Washington Post, 4/22/02)

Shifts in Market Are Sending Some Executives Packing (The Washington Post, 4/22/02)

Full Business Section

Full Washtech Section


Search Options

 News Home Page
 News Digest
 Home & Garden
 Weekly Sections
 Print Edition