Tuesday, May 13, 2008

This is the sort of thing my nightmares are made of

I have a bit more than some nebulous, unformed concept of what would be required to infiltrate one of the national laboratories like Lawrence Livermore or Los Alamos or JPL - so when I read an article in Time magazine that reports that the Lawrence Livermore National Lab was infiltrated by commandos in a mock raid, it scares me on every possible level.
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.

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

In addition to the fears surrounding the fissibles, the labs truck-mounted Gatling guns are spawning questions and controversy as well. First of all, they are supposed to be tested regularly, so their failure during the mock raid is troubling. The guns also have inspired fears among the civilian population because they can discharge 4000 rounds per minute and have a rill-radius greater than one mile. This prompts concerns about what could happen if the lab were ever attacked and the guns were engaged and firing live rounds.

And for the uninitiated - force-on-force simulations are just this side of worthless. The defenders always have a heads up that the simulation is coming, and they always happen over weekends or at night, when there is minimal staff, and the probable hostage-taking scenarios are skipped over. The minimal staff also means that the defenders do not have to exercise caution for fear of catching staffers in the crossfire.

The DoE played down the failure of the force-on-force simulation, saying only that there were "positives and negatives" - that some things went well and others needed "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."

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