May 13, 2008

Security Flaws Exposed at Nuke Lab

By Adam Zagorin/Washington

If you were a terrorist looking for weapons-grade nuclear material in America, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory might be a good place to start. At the core of the nuclear-weapons research facility about an hour's drive from San Francisco stands the "Superblock," a collection of buildings surrounded by multi-story steel-mesh fencing, a no man's land, electronic security gear, armed guards and cables to prevent a helicopter landing on the roof. These defenses are in place largely to protect Building 332, a repository for roughly 2,000 pounds of deadly plutonium and volatile, weapons-grade uranium — enough fissile material to build at least 300 nuclear weapons. But a recent simulated terror attack tested those defenses, and sources tell TIME that the results were not reassuring.

One night several weeks ago, according to TIME's sources, a commando team posing as terrorists attacked and penetrated the lab, quickly overpowering its defenses to reach its "objective" — a mock payload of fissile material. The exercise highlighted a number of serious security shortcomings at Livermore, sources say, including the failure of a hydraulic system essential to operating an extremely lethal Gatling gun that protects the facility. Experts contacted by TIME — including Congressional staff from both parties informed of the episode, and experts personally familiar with safeguards at Livermore — all said that the test amounts to an embarrassment to those responsible for securing the nation's nuclear facilities, and that it required immediate steps to correct what some called the most dangerous security weaknesses ever found at the lab.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman was quickly informed of the episode, along with other senior officials in the U.S. nuclear and national security apparatus. "People who know about this are very concerned; they are not happy," said one senior Congressional aide.

"It is essential to prevent terrorists from accessing nuclear materials at Livermore," said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, an independent nonprofit that recently issued a study of the Lab's security. "Suicidal terrorists would not need to steal the fissile material, they could simply detonate it as part of an improvised nuclear device right on the spot." Some 7 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the laboratory — a fact that has prompted at least one panel of experts to recommend moving its nuclear-weapons material elsewhere.

According to a former senior officer familiar with the details of security at Livermore, simulated attacks are staged approximately every 12 months. The attack team's objective is usually to penetrate the "Superblock," after which the attackers are timed to determine whether they can hold their ground long enough to construct a crude "dirty bomb" that could, in theory, be detonated immediately, or can buy themselves enough time to fabricate a rudimentary nuclear device, approximating the destructive power of the low-yield weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. A third option in the simulation is for the attackers to abscond with the nuclear material into the heavily-populated San Francisco Bay area.

The security flaws exposed in the recent test could exacerbate public opposition to nuclear weapons material being stored at Livermore, which is located near a major highway interchange, atop a vital agricultural irrigation canal and within a mile of two elementary schools, a preschool, a middle school and a senior center. In 2005 the Energy Department approved the doubling of the amount of plutonium stored at Livermore, less than five months after a scientific panel recommended, for security reasons, that nearly all of it be moved to a safer, more remote site.

"The fissile material simply cannot be made safe and secure," says Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CARES, a Livermore nuclear weapons watchdog group. "We in the community, which has 81,000 people, want to get rid of the plutonium and highly enriched uranium as soon as possible."

The alleged failure of Livermore's truck-mounted Gatling guns could also draw heavy criticism. Those weapons have long been controversial because they can fire 4000 rounds a minute and kill a person more than a mile away, raising fears among local residents about what might happen if the guns were ever discharged. The weapons are also supposed to be tested on a regular basis, and the reason for their reported failure remains unclear.

Many critics have also argued that the entire process of conducting "force-on-force" simulations at Livermore is flawed because the exercise does not adequately approximate conditions that would pertain during a real attack. The defenders are always given advance notice of the simulations, which usually occur at night or on weekends, when few of the facility's thousands of staff are present. As a result, there is no simulation of the hostage-taking that might occur if the lab were attacked during business hours. The absence of most regular employees also means that defenders do not have to worry about directing their fire to avoid innocent victims, many of whom might be present during an actual attack.

Finally, nothing in the "force-on-force" exercises simulates the danger posed by Livermore being situated beneath the flight path to several nearby airports. "If a plane ever tried to fly into the lab," says Tri- Valley CARE'S Kelley, "no one has ever explained how it would be stopped."

As for the Department of Energy, in a press release issued last Friday referring to the recent force-on-force exercise at Livermore, it claimed that an inspection team sent to the site after the simulation had noted both "several very positive areas" and "other areas requiring corrective action."

"We do not believe the [nuclear] materials at Livermore are at risk, and we do believe that security is strong," a DOE spokesperson told TIME. "But we're also interested in examining any deficiencies, which is the purpose of these routine exercises."


Frank Young said...

Here is the official version:

"Following the initial HSS debrief, NNSA sent a team of headquarters and field security experts to assess the laboratory’s response to the inspection. Although the inspectors noted several very positive areas, there were other areas requiring corrective action. NNSA is evaluating the corrective actions put into place by LLNL. HSS’s final inspection report will be completed over the next month.

"NNSA Principal Deputy Bill Ostendorff said that the initial results of the LLNL inspection highlighted a number of areas that require immediate attention, and that he expected the laboratory to work closely with the NNSA Livermore Site Office to make needed improvements. In addition, senior NNSA officials have discussed these security issues with the LLNS Board of Governors."

Anonymous said...

What did you expect, when you have a construction company running a National lab? Those Bechtel Bozos make UC look secure and efficient.

And UC wasn't secure or efficient.

No surprise that NNSA tried to whitewash the event, either.

Anonymous said...

"Suicidal terrorists would not need to steal the fissile material, they could simply detonate it as part of an improvised nuclear device on the spot." (Danielle Brian/POGO.)

Yeah, right, it is called; the HEU bomb.

I have previously written:

1) A brute fact, due to organization problems and communication problems between and within the FBI and CIA, and lack of imagination and intelligence, 9/11 wasn´t stopped, a severe wake-up call, that started the 21st Century.

2) The HEU bomb, as well as the "dirty bomb" are more probable that terrorists actually would use against the US, than an actual nuclear weapon.

3) The HEU bomb, as outlined by nuclear physicists Thomas B. Cochran and Matthew G. McKinzie, in Scientific American, April 2008, pages 80-81:

"The ´quality´of nuclear material since then [Little Boy] has continued to improve, however, so much so that 1987 Nobel laureate physicist and Manhattan Project scientist Luis Alvarez noted that if terrorists had modern weapons-grade uranium [HEU], they ´would have a good chance of setting off a high-yieled explosion simply by dropping one half of the material on the other half.´To test that assertion, we modeled the difference between the Little Boy design and an improvised nuclear device as crude as the one Alvarez described.

We again used the Los Alamos software code and modeled the yield of Little Boy on publicly available design information, as well as two simple configurations of HEU in a gun assembly. Our modeling showed that, for an explosive-driven gun assembly, the minimum quantity that was required to obtain a one-kiloton explosive yield would be substantially less than the amount of HEU in Little Boy. Most disturbingly, with larger quantities, a one-kiloton yield could be achieved with a probability greater than 50 percent by dropping a single piece of HEU onto another, confirming Alvarez´s statement. Designing an HEU bomb seems shockingly simple. The only real impediment, therefore, is secretly gathering sufficient material."

(For a more thorough analyse of this subject:

Scientific American, April 2008, National Security, Detecting Nuclear Smuggling, Radiation monitors at U.S. ports cannot reliably detect highly enriched uranium, which onshore terrorists could assemble into a nuclear bomb, by Thomas B. Cochran and Matthew G. McKinzie, pages 76-81.)

Anonymous said...

LLNL needs to get out of the nuclear weapons business all together. With all SNM leaving Superblock in 2 years and Site 300 losing its NNSA funding as part of Complex Transformation, LLNL should be transfered back to DOE and UC. Any ongoing NNSA weapons work could be done by LLNL as WFO. If LLNL tries to hold on to nuke weapons work as its core mission, it will be a small lab of a few hundred total (support and programmatic), mostly running NIF as an user facility.

Its hard to justify two big nuke weapon physics labs given this countries current/future budget constraints. Consolidating SNM/pit production and most of the design work at LANL makes sense, with LLNL tasked to do limited "independent" peer review of LANL's work on an as needed basis. Given LLNL's location and proximity to the high tech/science communities in the Bay Area, its in a better position than LANL to survive without NNSA work.

Anonymous said...

Someone can call Sig Hecker and they can turn LLNL into a campus. They can check out books and have show and tell.

Complain all you want, security is part of our world because it has to be.

Anonymous said...

HSS is on a tear flunking everyone. Never saw a cabinet agency pour so much money into self-flagellation...

Anonymous said...

3:44 pm: "No surprise that NNSA tried to whitewash the event, either."

That wasn't whitewash. Not to justify or minimize whatever it was that actually happened, DOE's own security rules prevent them from saying virtually anything about a security exercise that results in a "negative" outcome. No discussion of the scenario, the tactics, the weapons involved, the nuimbers of attackers or defenders, etc. is allowed. When you think about it, it probably makes sense to keep such information from possible adversaries, at least until the stuff is figured out and fixed.

Anonymous said...

8:09 pm: "HSS is on a tear flunking everyone. Never saw a cabinet agency pour so much money into self-flagellation..."

This is Podonsky's hyper-inflated ego, pure and simple. Bodman could rein him in, but doesn't want to be seen as muzzling a watchdog. A stronger Secretary of Energy would see the ultimate counterproductivity of Podonsky's jihad against the NNSA facilities, but Bodman is focused on oil and gas prices and his upcoming retirement.

Anonymous said...

5/13/08 4:50 PM

kinda makes you wonder why folks still want to test to determine "reliability". If it is that simple, any twit could put together an effective weapon (providing they had the right material).Oh, I forgot, we need underground testing to verify safety, not reliability.

Anonymous said...

5/13/08 8:09 PM
If it is supposed to be hush, hush and it got into the mainstream press this quickly it would appear the rules have changed.

Anonymous said...

From a newspaper that covers LLNL
By Betsy Mason
Contra Costa Times

"... Four of the areas of the lab's security that were inspected during a routine, seven-week independent audit conducted by the Department of Energy's Office of Health, Safety and Security during April and March were rated as "effective performance," and four needed improvement."

"... A DOE official familiar with the mock attack said that the Time report was exaggerated.

The attacking force did reach their objective, he said, and the defenders did not do as well as they could have in some areas, but the attack was unrealistic.

For one, the simulation started at the fence line of the plutonium facility known as Superblock, already well inside lab property, he said. The attack team was made up of security officers from other DOE sites and before the exercise began was allowed to haul into Superblock equipment, including all-terrain vehicles, torches and mock explosives.

Some members of the attack team were even positioned inside rooms in the Superblock, as if they had already cut fences, blown up walls and avoided guards. The mock attackers were also treated to a walkthrough ahead of the exercise.

"They knew exactly what was there, how to get to certain places and where the defenders would be," said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It just wouldn't happen in real life."

The whole point of the force-on-force test is to really stress the system and hit the pressure points, he said.

"Things don't run perfectly in a force-on-force," he said. "That's not the point. You want to see where the stress points are. That's why you do it."

"...National Nuclear Security Administration director Thomas D'Agostino told the Times that it makes sense to move Livermore's plutonium to its sister nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico because "you don't have communities growing up around Los Alamos."

Anonymous said...

"...National Nuclear Security Administration director Thomas D'Agostino ... "you don't have communities growing up around Los Alamos."

This ia a quote of the YEAR, right? What an idiot.

Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like it's time to call a Congressional meeting so that all the politicians can get their 30 second sound bites demanding that LLNL be shut down.

Anonymous said...

Bechtel is not running LLNL Security, UC has and is running it [Russ Miller, who left three months into the new contract (must be a story there); and now Dave Leary, who has led LLNL Security several times]. This failure didn't happen overnight and is due to the lack of accountability and lack of long term qualified security leadership. The HSS may have had an agenda, but the results are real, just the same.

Anonymous said...

Yes Russ Miller was UC at LLNL, he came to LLNL in 2001 after 24 years in the US Secret Service where he directed all personal physical protection activities for the president and the White House... we didn't lose a president on his watch, so I'd imagine the snm in Superblock was safe... Word is he left LLNL after he got tired of the daily Bechtel BS and transition incompetence that lead to budget cuts...

Anonymous said...

"Bechtel is not running LLNL Security..."

Not yet. However, once they've got the Bechtel Security Services subsidiary up and running, well, I'm sure all of that will change very quickly.

LANL is seen as a big moo-cow that is just waiting to be milked dry by the Bechtel Boys. It's one of the ways that "corporatization" plays out, as Sig well knows.

Anonymous said...

5/13 9:52 pm: "If it is supposed to be hush, hush and it got into the mainstream press this quickly it would appear the rules have changed."

Not really, someone just broke them. Time cited unnamed "sources," and as usual, POGO is involved.

Anonymous said...

This isn't really new news. There have been stories in various magazines and papers over the years about the failures at the labs and places like rocky flats when these drills are executed. My personal favorite was the instance where, not allowed to cut through fences as part of the exercise, a lacrosse stick was employed by the mock-terrorists to lob the SNM over the fence. That was over 10 years ago if I recall.

Anonymous said...

5/14/08 3:36 PM

"Not really, someone just broke them. Time cited unnamed "sources," and as usual, POGO is involved."

If true then where is the outrage over this embarrassing leak? I don't think rules were broken. I think this was a sanctioned release of "insider" information.

Frank Young said...

From Counterterrorism Blog:

"There has been some little noticed Congressional interest in requiring the DOE to establish a Federal security force for nuclear facilities. DOE has resisted this, claiming it would be unnecessary and too expensive. That is perhaps a curious position, given the performance record of the private security forces."

Anonymous said...

D'Agostino is on public record that within 4 years all SNM will be shipped out LLNL and it will no longer be a nuclear facility requiring high level security.

So Congress would federalize the LLNL Protective Force totally disrupting their management and administration of their benefits only to change them back to LLNS in a couple of years - makes complete sense.