WASHINGTON - After a rash of security lapses, the Energy Department is looking to create an elite force of federal guards to protect plutonium and weapons-usable uranium from terrorists, while also preparing plans to move some of the material to more secure areas.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on Friday outlined a sweeping set of proposals to increase security at nearly a dozen government facilities that hold highly radioactive material that could be used to fashion a crude nuclear device.
These materials "must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands," declared Abraham in a speech to security guards participating in a skills competition at the department's Savannah River complex near Aiken, S.C.
Abraham cited "poor performance" in mock security exercises at some weapons sites and other lapses - such as lost keys to secure areas - and shortcomings in training to buttress his call for new security measures. Although rare, he said, such lapses are unacceptable.
A Department audit recently found guards at one facility cheating in mock tests by obtaining advance information about an assault during a test. Another investigation found guards inadequately trained in such basic tasks as using a shotgun.
For the first time, the Energy Department is closely looking at creating a federal police force to guard nuclear weapons facilities and establish a specially trained "elite" force to protect areas with the most sensitive nuclear weapons material, Abraham reported.
The sites, including federal weapons labs and other facilities such as the Savannah River complex where Abraham spoke, now are guarded by private contractors. The number of guards is classified.
Abraham said the department was also moving toward consolidation of nuclear material because some facilities holding weapons-usable material may never be able to meet the most stringent security requirements being demanded in light of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The department acknowledged for the first time Friday that plutonium used for weapons-related research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California may have to be moved.
Abraham said he expected to make a decision on that by early next year as part of a broad review on the needs of the nuclear weapons complex over the next 20 years. Consolidation is "one of the surest ways" to increase protection of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, he said.
"Because the stakes are so high everything is on the table," Abraham said.
Livermore lab officials have opposed removing the plutonium, arguing that it is needed for a number of research programs related to maintaining the nation's stockpile of nuclear warheads. But, said Abraham, "over the long term we should look for a better solution" and suggested that some of the work at Livermore might be shifted elsewhere so the plutonium could be move to a more secure, remote location.
Some members of Congress and an independent watchdog group, the Project on Government Oversight, have argued for some time that Livermore, nestled in a suburban, residential setting 40 miles from San Francisco, is ill-suited for having plutonium on site.
Abraham also said that highly enriched weapons-suitable uranium now at the Sandia National Laboratory near Albuquerque, N.M., will be removed within three years as a research reactor there is closed down. The department previously announced plans to transfer plutonium at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, also in New Mexico, to the Nevada Test Site where better security conditions exist.
He noted the department also is building a central facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee to consolidate highly enriched uranium within that sprawling site and disclosed that the government may "downblend" as much as 100 tons of the uranium there so it can't be used for a nuclear weapon.
Critics of DOE security programs reacted cautiously.
Danielle Brian, POGO's executive director, praised Abraham's initiatives, but added that the department "and its contractors have a long history of stonewalling security reforms."
"He's outlined the most important things that need to be done," she said. "But we still need to see them happen."
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., accused the department of "recycling initiatives made public years ago" and long advocated by watchdog groups and members of Congress. "The secretary should be implementing bold changes that address these (security) problems," not promising to consider reforms, said Markey.