By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, April 22, 2002 (ENS) - The White House has not appropriated the funds needed to protect the nation's nuclear weapons plants and labs against terrorist attacks, charged a Energy Department official in a letter sent last month to the federal Office of Management and Budget. The letter was released today by Massachusetts Representative Edward Markey, a longtime critic of the nation's nuclear security.
On March 28, Bruce Carnes, director of the Energy Department's (DOE) office of management, budget and evaluation, wrote a letter to Marcus Peacock, associate program director at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
Carnes noted that the DOE requested additional funds in March to increase security and emergency response capabilities at nuclear facilities "in order to adequately protect the public, our workers, and the environment."
"We are very disappointed that we did not get your support for supplemental emergency funding," Carnes wrote. "The Department's remaining safeguards and security budgets are not sufficient to implement the security posture requirements that appropriately respond to the September 11th attacks."
Carnes notes that the DOE had been told that the funding was not approved because a revised document outlining the basis for various departmental security measures has not been completed.
"This isn't a tenable position for you to take, in my view," Carnes wrote to Peacock.
"We are not operating, and cannot operate, under the pre-September 11" security plan, Carnes argued. Until revised security guidelines are issued, the DOE must operate under interim guidelines, "and you have not provided resources to enable us to do so," he added.
"For months the agency has been publicly denying security weaknesses at nuclear weapons facilities," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which first obtained the Carnes letter. "In this document, the DOE acknowledges that they are not currently adequately protecting the public from a terrorist attack."
Representative Markey, the Democrat who released Carnes' letter today, said he has been questioning the safety of nuclear sites since before last year's terrorist attacks. Since September 11, Markey has been seeking information from the DOE and other federal offices to support Bush administration contentions that nuclear facilities are secure.
Nuclear sites face two kinds of major threats, Markey says: the theft of nuclear bomb materials, and attack by terrorists armed with bombs. But the biggest concern could be a combination attack in which an armed group could take over a nuclear laboratory, build a bomb, and blow up the facility.
At least 10 DOE sites, including national laboratories in Denver, Colorado and the San Francisco Bay Area in California, may contain enough weapons grade plutonium or uranium to construct a "crude atomic bomb," Markey said. Those facilities might be vulnerable to infiltration by terrorists, who could then construct and detonate a nuclear device on site, he warned.
Markey has sent letters to the DOE and to President George W. Bush demanding that the administration review and upgrade security measures at DOE nuclear sites.
"I am concerned that a successful terrorist attack at one of these facilities could lead to the theft of nuclear weapons grade materials, the rapid construction and detonation of a radiological dispersion device or 'dirty bomb,' or the rapid construction and detonation of an improvised nuclear device or 'homemade nuclear bomb' which could kill numerous people and devastate the nearby communities," Markey wrote to President Bush.
While the Bush administration is actively seeking funds for a missile defense system to protect the nation from warheads launched by other nations, it has done little to protect domestic nuclear facilities from homemade bombs made from the nation's own nuclear materials, Markey says.
"The administration has requested almost $8 billion for missile defense which won't do anything to prevent suicidal terrorists from attacking nuclear facilities and blowing up dirty bombs or homemade nuclear weapons," Markey said in a statement today. "But when the Department of Energy finally admits that security is not what it should be, the Office of Management and Budget refuses to help."
In January, the DOE responded to criticisms by Representative Markey, POGO and other groups by calling their allegations "false and misleading."
General John Gordon, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration and DOE's Under Secretary of Energy Security at Nuclear Weapons Facilities, said tests have demonstrated that the DOE's nuclear facilities are secure.
"Nuclear material is not at risk at Department of Energy facilities," Gordon concluded.
But a study released by POGO last fall found that exercises in which federal agents posing as terrorists attacked DOE facilities found that the "terrorists" were able to breach security more than half the time.
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