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Context of 'February 15, 2004: Nuclear Specialist Reveals Fatal Weaknesses in US Nuclear Security'

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Energy Department Secretary Spencer Abraham asks for almost $380 million for added security at US nuclear facilities (see February 15, 2004). The Bush administration approves less than 10 percent of that figure, $26.4 million. Items that are not funded include: secure barriers and fences; funds to secure computer programs vulnerable to hackers; equipment to detect explosives hidden in packages and vehicles entering a nuclear site; and the reduction in the number of sites that store bomb-grade plutonium and uranium. [Carter, 2004, pp. 18]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), US Department of Energy, Spencer Abraham

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Department of Energy (DOE) safety specialist Chris Steele, who shut down a hazardous, unsecured nuclear waste dump at the Los Alamos nuclear facility a year earlier (see July 18, 2001), is demoted from his position as the DOE’s chief safety official at Los Alamos after he overrules what he calls inept preparations against terrorist attacks. In October 2002, Steele receives a safety analysis report for a radioactive waste treatment facility at Los Alamos. The report estimates the chances of a “rogue” airliner crashing into the facility as being a million to one, even considering the events of September 11, 2001. It predicts that such a crash, deliberate or not, would cause hundreds of thousands of gallons of nuclear waste to catch fire. However, the report said, the roof sprinkler system would put out the flames. Steele points out that the sprinkler system would be destroyed in the crash: “That must be a magical sprinkler system, since it’s apparently able to rise up from the rubble, turn itself on and put out the flames. We should buy one of those for every nuclear plant in the country.” After Steele rejects the report, he is stripped of his security clearance and fired. He is accused of committing “serious security violations” by the National Nuclear Security Administration. [Carter, 2004, pp. 17-18; Vanity Fair, 2/15/2004]

Entity Tags: National Nuclear Security Administration, US Department of Energy, Chris Steele

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Aerial view of Los Alamos test site.Aerial view of Los Alamos test site. [Source: DefenseTech.org]Rich Levernier, a specialist with the Department of Energy (DOE) for 22 years, spent over six years before the 9/11 attacks running nuclear war games for the US government. In a Vanity Fair article, Levernier reveals what he shows to be critical weaknesses in security for US nuclear plants. Levernier’s special focus was the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory and nine other major nuclear facilities. The Los Alamos facility is the US’s main storage plant for processing plutonium and obsolete (but still effective) nuclear weapons. Levernier’s main concern was terrorist attacks. Levernier’s procedure was to, once a year, stage a mock terrorist attack using US military commandos to assault Los Alamos and the other nuclear weapons facilities, with both sides using harmless laser weapons to simulate live fire. Levernier’s squads were ordered to penetrate a given weapons facility, capture its plutonium or highly enriched uranium, and escape. The facilities’ security forces were tasked to repel the mock attacks.
Multiple Failures - Levernier is going public with the results of his staged attacks, and the results are, in the words of Vanity Fair reporter Mark Hertsgaard, “alarming.” Some facilities failed every single test. Los Alamos fell victim to the mock attacks over 50 percent of the time, with Levernier’s commandos getting in and out with the goods without firing a shot—they never encountered a guard. And this came when security forces were told months in advance exactly what day the assaults would take place. Levernier calls the nuclear facilities’ security nothing more than “smoke and mirrors.… On paper, it looks good, but in reality, it’s not. There are lots of shiny gates and guards and razor wire out front. But go around back and there are gaping holes in the fence, the sensors don’t work, and it just ain’t as impressive as it appears.” The Los Alamos facility houses 2.7 metric tons of plutonium and 3.2 metric tons of highly enriched uranium; experts say that a crude nuclear device could be created using just 11 pounds of plutonium or 45 pounds of highly enriched uranium. Arjun Makhijani, the head of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, says the most dangerous problem exposed by Levernier is the possibility of terrorists stealing plutonium from Los Alamos. It would be a relatively simple matter to construct a so-called “dirty bomb” that could devastate an American city. Even a terrorist attack that set off a “plutonium fire” could result in hundreds of cancer deaths and leave hundreds of square miles uninhabitable.
Involuntary Whistleblower - Levernier is not comfortable about being a whistleblower, and until now has never spoken to the press or Congress about his experiences. He finds himself coming forward now because, after spending six years trying unsuccessfully to persuade his bosses at the DOE to address the problems, they refused to even acknowledge that a problem existed. Shortly before he spoke to Hertsgaard, he was fired for a minor infraction and stripped of his security clearance, two years before he was due to retire with a full pension. He has filed a lawsuit against the DOE, charging that he was illegally gagged and improperly fired. He is speaking out, he says, in the hopes of helping prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack against the US that is entirely preventable. Levonier asserts that the Bush administration is doing little more than talking tough about nuclear security (see February 15, 2004). [Carter, 2004, pp. 17-18; Vanity Fair, 2/15/2004]

Entity Tags: Mark Hertsgaard, George W. Bush, Bush administration (43), Arjun Makhijani, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Vanity Fair, James Ford, Rich Levernier, US Department of Energy

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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