Nuclear Insecurity

Why is the president’s budget downsizing security at our nuclear weapons labs?

With the alleged Yemeni terrorists on the lam, it’s reassuring to hear about all the money pegged for homeland security. The White House’s proposed budget for 2003 allocates a total of $38 billion for various domestic defense programs, with $4.8 billion set for airport security—up from $1.5 billion this year—and $5.9 billion to protect us from bioterrorism—a nearly four-fold increase from last year.

But this budget also calls for money to protect our nation’s nuclear weapons labs and production facilities—such as Los Alamos: We’ll spend $655 million for that—a $51 million decrease from last year.

Here’s the telling snippet from the proposed budget of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is a part of the Department of Energy:

Note: Dollars in thousandsFY 2002
FY 2003
Request to
Dollar change
FY 2003 vs.
FY 2002
Percentage change
FY 2003 vs.
FY 2002
Secure transportation asset…………161,518155,368-6,150 -4%
Safeguards and security…………….554,881509,954-44,927-8%

How do the folks at the Department of Energy explain the cut? The agency is simply being a conscientious spender, says Lisa Cutler, NNSA spokesperson. “We’re in the midst of an analysis of our ongoing security needs. It’s possible that there will be an additional request for ‘03 funding,” she says.

Cutler also points out that soon after Sept. 11, Congress added $106 million to the agency’s 2002 budget to beef up security. But that money is being spent for one-time increases—such as overtime pay for guards—and will be gone by the end of the year, before the new, reduced budget kicks in. Besides, as John Pike, a national security analyst at Globalsecurity.org, points out, everybody got additional temporary security funding from Congress after Sept. 11 and asked for and received increases for the new budget.

The security flaws at the labs have been well-documented. According to the whistleblower group Project on Government Oversight, U.S. soldiers posing as terrorists have infiltrated and stolen nuclear material from our labs in more 50 percent of the mock exercises conducted in recent years. In one operation, reported by the Wall Street Journal, soldiers made off with a pile of plutonium with a cart they bought at Home Depot. In another case, the mock-terrorists lobbed plutonium over a security fence with a lacrosse stick.

Peter Stockton, former special assistant for nuclear security at DOE and currently a POGO consultant, says that nuke lab security hasn’t improved since Sept. 11. DOE still hasn’t updated the “Design Base Threat” guidelines that spell out what types of attacks nuke labs must be prepared for. That means that labs need to have contingency plans for an attack by only a handful of terrorists, not as many as the 19 who took direct action on Sept. 11. (NNSA’s Cutler declined to comment on the specifics of the current security rules.)

POGO further alleges that DOE has cut the budget for moving a small nuclear reactor at the Sandia nuclear laboratory in New Mexico to a more secure area underground from $28 million to zero. “That program was the one positive step the DOE had taken in years,” says Stockton. “And in next year’s budget, they simply axed it.” (NNSA’s Cutler denies the Sandia cut, but POGO insists that Sandia contractor Lockheed Martin has confirmed them.)

Maybe the budget cuts are for good reasons. After Sept. 11, nearly every federal agency has had to rethink its security procedures, and maybe the Department of Energy figured out how to tighten security, thwart terrorists, and save a few bucks. Or just maybe, they’re penny-pinching in the wrong place.