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Latest Los Alamos Security Debacle Prompts Hearings on DOE

July/August 2000

By Philipp C. Bleek

Following the loss of sensitive nuclear weapons information from a Los Alamos National Laboratory vault, Congress held a series of hearings in June on the Department of Energy's (DOE) security failings. After being lambasted in both the Senate and the House for his role in the debacle, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson tasked General John Gordon, recently confirmed as head of the new National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), to conduct a "top-to-bottom review" of the nation's nuclear laboratories. The current controversy is the latest in a string of security mishaps at the nuclear laboratories. Key lawmakers have indicated that if DOE's apparent security failings are not rectified, they may attempt to remove the nuclear weapons complex from DOE.

Legislated by Congress last fall after the Cox Report's allegations of widespread Chinese espionage at the nuclear labs, the NNSA is a semiautonomous agency within DOE responsible for the nuclear weapons complex and associated non-proliferation activities. President Bill Clinton signed the agency's implementing legislation in October, but arguing that the new organization could impede Richardson's ability to effectively manage the nuclear complex, Clinton authorized the energy secretary to "perform all duties and functions" of the NNSA director. The move angered congressional Republicans, who had intended to create a more autonomous organization. Although the NNSA formally began operating March 1, many legislators remain unsatisfied with DOE's implementation of the new agency, especially Richardson's insistence on dual-hatting"—cross-appointing senior DOE officials to parallel positions in the NNSA. (See ACT, April 2000.)

DOE's most recent security lapses surfaced at the beginning of June. Senior DOE officials were informed May 31 of the loss of hard drives containing technical information on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, used by a national nuclear emergency response team, more than three weeks after the drives had been discovered missing from their vault. The drives were subsequently found behind a photocopier in the nuclear weapons design division at Los Alamos. The case remains under investigation by the FBI.

In committee and on the floor, senators and representatives of both parties criticized what Senator Richard Bryan (D-NV) characterized as an apparent "culture of indifference" to security at DOE. At a June 13 House Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing, Representative Bart Stupak (D-MI) remarked sarcastically that it was easier for an authorized scientist to walk off with sensitive weapons information than it was for the average citizen to check out Winnie the Pooh from the public library.

DOE officials took responsibility for the recent mishap but also attempted to justify the open scientific environment they argued is necessary to foster innovation and attract capable scientists to the nuclear labs. Richardson noted at a June 21 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that while security measures must be "stringent," they must also "not stifle the science that allows us to have [a] deterrent." Richardson argued, "We have to find a way to balance science and security."

DOE officials have taken a range of actions to deal with the security failure, including temporarily suspending six officials and commissioning an independent inquiry. DOE is also restructuring its contract with the University of California, which runs the labs, and is apparently considering transferring responsibility for security to an independent entity. When announcing the contract change on June 30, Richardson noted the university's contribution to the scientific vitality of the laboratories, but stated that its performance in the security arena had been "unacceptable."

Since DOE security lapses had served as the primary motivator for the creation of the new NNSA, the renewed security controversy intensified Senate calls for Gordon's confirmation as NNSA chief. After some delay following his May nomination for the position, the Senate confirmed Gordon June 14 as the new under secretary for nuclear security and administrator of the NNSA. Gordon began his tenure June 29, and Richardson will formally swear him in July 12.

As his first major task, the energy secretary asked Gordon to conduct a "top-to-bottom review" at DOE's Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Laboratories. According to a DOE spokesman, the review will be "security oriented," although the spokesman emphasized that it will also deal with project management and other issues. DOE officials appear to be giving Gordon broad latitude in conducting his review, which is expected to be completed within a few months.

The current furor over security at DOE has sparked a debate among lawmakers regarding the future location of the nuclear weapons complex, with some arguing that DOE is simply not capable of effectively managing the laboratories and related facilities. At a June 21 Armed Services hearing, Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), the so-called patron saint of the nuclear laboratories, said he has "been convinced for many years" that the energy secretary "has too much to do." As a result, the senator contended that DOE's handling of nuclear weapons and non-proliferation has "suffered."

Several key lawmakers have indicated that the semiautonomous agency may be only an interim step. Senator John Warner (R-VA) summed up the long-term options for the nuclear weapons complex at the conclusion of the June 21 hearing: "One, does it remain…in DOE? Two, is it to be set up as a separate entity, like the old AEC [Atomic Energy Commission]? Or, three, put it in the Department of Defense?" Warner announced at the end of the hearing that he was drafting a bill to form a commission to study the issue, and Richardson noted his support for such an effort.