Albuquerque JournalSANTA FE — The nation's plutonium is far from secure, according to a fiery letter sent to the U.S. Department of Energy and many in Congress this week from a firm hired to double-check security at Los Alamos National Laboratory and other nuclear sites.
Saturday, February 17, 2001
Auditor Knocks Nuke SecurityBy Jennifer McKee
Journal Northern Bureau
Officials at both the Department of Energy and its Los Alamos lab decried the letter and questioned the credibility of its author -- Ronald Timm, president of RETA Security of Lemont, Ill., a company that also sells security systems.
Timm's letter, sent Monday, said that accidental "nuclear detonation or explosion" or the possible theft of "special nuclear materials" is possible and has been outlined in several earlier studies. The special nuclear materials are principally the radioactive ingredients needed to make a nuclear bomb, such as plutonium. The letter also says the DOE has minimized similar warnings and has failed to fix problems for years.
"The tone of Mr. Timm's letter speaks volumes about its credibility," said James Rickman, a lab spokesman. "The laboratory has multiple, robust security measures in place that are more than adequate to protect special nuclear materials from all credible threats."
Joe Davis, a DOE spokesman in Washington, D.C., said Timm earlier sent a similar letter to the department's investigative arm and that all his concerns were checked out.
"We're going to conduct a review of the letter to make sure there's nothing new," Davis said. "We believe most of these matters have been addressed."
The letter was addressed to new Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and forwarded to 19 members of Congress, an official with the General Accounting Office, two high-ranking DOE officials and a government watchdog group, the Project on Government Oversight. U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., was among those the letter was addressed to while Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., were not.
According to the letter, Timm alerted the DOE to his concerns earlier, but the department responded with an inadequate investigation that "minimized the problem."
"Terrorists have a ready supply of Special Nuclear Materials already existing and available within our borders," the letter reads. "The DOE has avoided addressing this serious fact for the past eight years."
The letter specifically mentioned Los Alamos National Lab and the defunct nuclear weapon factory at Rocky Flats, Colo.
Timm told the Journal that the DOE usually fixes its security problems when someone points them out but does nothing to upgrade the bureaucratic sluggishness and lack of accountability that creates the security problems in the first place.
"If (DOE efforts) at fixing things had been successful, we wouldn't be at risk anymore," he said. "The department has been reactive."
In addition to auditing DOE sites, RETA security also sells security systems — including a "sticky foam" designed to foil would-be intruders — and has audited security systems for more than 200 schools in Illinois.
Since 1997, RETA has been hired to review the so-called site plans every part of the DOE complex writes every year, Timm said. The plans outline what sensitive materials the places keep and how they're stored, transported and might be defended. Timm's job is to make sure the sites are telling the truth and living up to the department's own standards.
Los Alamos is not, Timm said.
"It's been a litany of problems," he said, declining to offer details. "That site is almost comic, although tragedy would probably be a better word for it."
He suggests the DOE "lock down" or cease all work with nuclear materials until it has a better handle on its security.
But according to Steven Aftergood, head of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, the public may not know whom to believe in this disagreement. Obviously, DOE and Los Alamos officials want to put the best spin on the situation they can, he said. But Timm, who relies on DOE contracts to make a living, has a reason to put his own spin on things.
"He's a security consultant who has an interest in increasing the flow of dollars," Aftergood said.
Still, if Timm's allegations are true, Aftergood said, then the nation's nuclear situation is "a little troubling."
Copyright 2001 Albuquerque Journal