- The Washington Times - Monday, August 12, 2002


Pending a final environmental review, the Energy Department is expected to move several tons of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium from a federal research laboratory in New Mexico to Nevada because of security concerns, according to documents.

In a department memo, John C. Browne, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, called the proposed move "the best overall decision to meet the post-September 11th challenges for the long-term security of nuclear activities."

A DOE spokesman, Bryan Wilkes, said that while no final decision has been made, moving the material to the Nevada Test Site is the preferred option being studied to increase security. The environmental study is being reviewed, he said.

Several tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium which could be used to make an atomic bomb are kept at Technical Area-18 at New Mexico's Los Alamos lab. Critics have said it cannot be adequately protected there.

"There is no doubt that that facility was at high risk. They simply could not defend it," said Pete Stockton, an analyst for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a private watchdog group that on Sunday released a copy of the Browne memo and other documents involving the expected move.

Built in the 1940s, Technical Area-18 is located at the bottom of a steep canyon, where the high ground and an adjacent highway make the site difficult to defend.

In repeated security exercises, troops have been unable to protect the material. In a 1997 exercise, Army Special Forces posing as attackers wheeled away a garden cart full of props representing the nuclear material. In another test, attackers obtained access to the facility, where they could have detonated an explosion, had they been terrorists.

Had actual material been stolen, it would have been enough to make several weapons, said Mr. Stockton, who three years ago chaired a DOE team that recommended to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson that the material be moved. Mr. Richardson ordered the environmental studies to look into moving the material.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat and a frequent critic of security at federal weapons facilities, urged the department to complete the move as quickly as possible and safeguard the material from potential terrorists.

POGO, which has criticized DOE security of nuclear weapons material, obtained a draft press release from the National Nuclear Security Administration, an agency within the DOE, that indicated plans are going forward to move the material to Nevada with a decision anticipated next month.

Everett H. Beckner, deputy NNSA administrator, has given his approval to begin design activities and other steps to implement the move, according to a memo obtained by POGO.

The material is part of a research project in which scientists examine how electronic components of nuclear weapons respond to small, short-lived nuclear detonations.

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