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The New York Times
May 7, 2005

Security Costs Could Shut Some A-Bomb Labs, Experts Warn

WASHINGTON, May 6 - The cost to protect materials for nuclear bombs from terrorists is rising so high that the Energy Department will need to close some weapons laboratories, or at least consolidate the weapons fuel that they hold, government officials and outside experts are warning.

Security costs threaten to eat into the budget for building and maintaining warheads, the experts say.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the department re-examined potential threats to the 13 laboratories and other plants across the country where it has what it calls "special nuclear materials," or plutonium and bomb-grade uranium. The department theorized that attackers might not try to steal the material, but rather fabricate a nuclear bomb on the spot and detonate it.

The reassessments, which included assumptions of a larger attacking force than previously, have led to sharply increased security costs, now $740 million a year and highly likely to rise. The underlying problem, critics say, is that a complex that was set up for the cold war, when the pace of design and manufacture was quick, is not suited to current needs.

The Project on Government Oversight, a group here that has made a specialty of making critiques of nuclear security, estimated in a study it will release next week that consolidating the weapons materials could save $2.7 billion over three years.

But, Danielle Brian, executive director of the project, said, "No one so far has looked at the entire complex, and said, 'Why do we still need this?' "

In a major speech on laboratory security on May 7, 2004, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said, "We have a responsibility to balance the important work we do at our facilities, which is often critical to the war on terror, with protecting those very same facilities against the threat of terrorist acts."

Mr. Abraham said the number of sites with special nuclear material had to be reduced "to the absolute minimum, consistent with carrying out our missions."

The speech does not appear to have produced any changes, but it did result in a study by a panel of advisers to the energy secretary, who is now Samuel W. Bodman. A report is supposed to be finished next month.

Tightening the security rules is making the problem acute. According to Ms. Brian's group, the new estimate of the number of possible attackers is triple the size of the old one. The estimate is classified, and department officials and others would not discuss it.

Department officials disputed the estimate of how much money could be saved by consolidating weapons material, but were quick to acknowledge that changes were needed.

"The weapons complex itself is clearly not what we would design if we were starting from a blank sheet of paper right now," said Linton F. Brooks, under secretary for nuclear security and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, the part of the Energy Department in charge of the laboratories.

In an interview last month, Mr. Brooks said some laboratories were hard to defend.

"In the Second World War, the threat was spies," Mr. Brooks said of one of his laboratories, Y-12, near Oak Ridge, Tenn., which has an enormous stock of weapons-grade uranium. "So you went to a remote valley and you had a pretty good control point to make sure which people went in. If the threat has become a quasimilitary attack force, no sane person would put something in a valley."

According to Ms. Brian's group, another site with problems is the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which was built in a rural area of California that has become a dense suburban neighborhood.

A study in 1995 by the Energy Department said the special nuclear materials could be transferred out of Lawrence Livermore by 2000. In a new report, Ms. Brian's group estimated that moving out the material would save $60 million to $70 million for equipment required by the new security assessment, and $315 million in coming years in savings on labor.

While Mr. Brooks disputed many of the specifics in the report from Ms. Brian's organization, he said it was "a thoughtful group."

In the last few years, just one United States nuclear site has been "de-inventoried," an area of the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland, Wash., where plutonium was processed for weapons. Thirteen other sites, including laboratories and a factory for submarine fuel, remain, even though the system produces hardly any new weapons.

The laboratories all have a strong support by members of Congress who represent adjacent areas, because, like military bases, they are a strong economic stimulus.

For example, at a hearing in 2004 on security at Livermore, Representative Ellen O. Tauscher, a California Democrat whose district includes the laboratory, said it would be "smarter to consolidate materials" to make protection easier. For Livermore to do its work, Ms. Tauscher said, it has to have plutonium.

A House aide who specializes in the laboratories and insisted on anonymity because of political sensitivity, said: "You've had the beginnings of consolidation. But the complex hit stasis, where people didn't want to lose their material because they saw it as a source of their mission. If they lost the material, the next question is, Why do we have these researchers here?"

Nuclear Lab Missing 269 Computers

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho, May 6 (AP) - A nuclear research center, the Idaho National Laboratory, cannot account for 269 missing computers and disk drives that may have held sensitive information, the inspector general of the Energy Department says. The computers were among 998 items that cost $2.2 million and that came up missing over the last three years, a new report says.

Laboratory officials told investigators that none of the computers and disk drives had been authorized to process classified information. But they acknowledged that there was a possibility the devices had "export controlled" information about nuclear technologies applicable to civilian and military use that federal laws prohibit being released to foreigners.

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