Last week, the watchdog Project on Government Oversight reported that workers at Pantex, a Texan nuclear-weapons plant, had almost accidentally detonated a W56 warhead in the spring of 2005. A W56 has 100 times the Hiroshima bomb's yield.
A similar incident occurred there in 2004 when workers discovered a crack in a W56 warhead; they ended up patching it together using "the equivalent of duct tape." BWXT, the Texan plant operator, paid safety-violation fines totaling less than $125,000 in each case.
Unfortunately, the sloppiness and lack of oversight demonstrated at Pantex characterize the running of many US nuclear-weapons facilities.
For example, all classified work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico was temporarily stopped in July 2004 due to a security breach; two "removable data storage devices" with top-secret information couldn't be located. Just two months ago, police doing a drug bust in Northern California were surprised to come across "Secret Restricted" Los Alamos data, potentially involving nuclear-weapons information and underground testing detection.
Police found classified nuclear-weapons data in a drug bust.
In June 2006, the National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) revealed its database had been hacked and the personal records of at least 1,500 employees and contractors stolen. The NNSA amazingly took over seven months to report the theft to the Energy Department.
Classified information leaks are not the only kind of security violation threatening US nuclear-weapons facilities. The Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee, for instance, made headlines in March 2004 when it reported missing 200 keys to protected areas. This discovery followed reports of missing master keys in both the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
Then in early 2004, news surfaced that security personnel guarding the nation's nuclear stockpiles, including tons of enriched uranium at Y-12, had been cheating on their antiterrorism drills. An Energy Department investigation discovered that contract security guards at the Y-12 plant had been given access to computer models of antiterrorism drill strikes in advance, thus rendering the tests useless. Amazingly, a representative from the longtime government contractor charged with securing the facility, Wackenhut, still had the audacity to claim that security at Y-12 was "better than it's ever been." Few were convinced.
Wackenhut was back in the news in September 2006, when a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) study revealed serious security breaches at a nuclear power plant near Houston, Texas. The UCS report detailed that "vehicles enter protected areas of the reactor unsearched, surveillance cameras don't work, and the cleaning staff has easy access to firearms." Yet guards faced retaliation when they tried to alert their supervisors to the problems.
Most recently, officials at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) admitted in October 2006 that the facility does not meet government security standards. ORNL, which the Project on Government Oversight calls "the most poorly protected site in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex," stores enough highly enriched uranium for 14,000 nuclear warheads, yet the Bush administration has denied funding to upgrade its security. Not much stopping terrorists from entering the place, stealing highly enriched uranium and within minutes, constructing an improvised nuclear device with a yield similar to that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
The Bush administration's profligate spending on nuclear-weapons is largely to blame for the ongoing scandals, having created a wild-west mentality of companies trying to cash in on Armageddon. Even worse, the outlay is unbalanced. The Department of Energy's budget for FY 2006 requested over $6.6 billion for nuclear "Weapons activities," for example, yet cut funds for "Nuclear waste disposal" by over 12%. The administration's FY 2007 budget request for nuclear "Weapons activities" was $6.4 billion, but only $107 million (a fraction of one percent) was slated to go towards expanded efforts to secure and/or remove "at risk nuclear or radioactive material worldwide."
Let's hope that it doesn't take some tragic accident or terrorist incident to alert the US public to the dangers of its own nuclear-weapons programs. The atomic bomb is ticking...
1. Curious where the world's (known) nuclear weapons are located? Check out Greenpeace's "Zoom on Doom: Easy-to-find nuclear weapons map"
2. Just in time for the 110th Congress, visit the Physicians for Social Responsibility action page on Congressional legislation (www.psr.org) and the Council for a Livable World, (www.clw.org) which provides financial and other support to arms-control-friendly congressional candidates.
This article is partially excerpted from Heather's book, The Progressives' Handbook: Get the Facts and Make a Difference Now, Volume 1. Contact her at www.heatherwokusch.com, where you will find a linked version and 3-minute podcast of each article. For the next few days, Heather is the featured author on Salon's online community Inkwell (www.well.com/conf/inkwell.vue/). It's a fascinating discussion and guests are invited, so if you have a question or comment you'd like to include, visit the Inkwell site!