WASHINGTON - Over the past several years, mock terrorist attacks on Department of Energy nuclear facilities, including some led by Navy SEALs, have succeeded more than half of the time, according to a new study by a watchdog group that warned the department urgently needed to improve its security forces.
The eight-month study, based on reports from more than a dozen whistleblowers and unclassified documents, was undergoing its final edit when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
Energy Department officials have said security at DOE sites has been beefed up since the attacks, though they decline to provide any details.
But a spokesman for the Project on Government Oversight, said the study's conclusion - that the department's weapons complex was vulnerable to terrorist attack - was as valid now as before Sept. 11.
"These problems don't get fixed overnight," said Eric Miller, a spokesman for the non-partisan, non-profit Washington, D.C., group that since 1981 has kept an eye on government departments and agencies. "We believe these sites are still vulnerable."
In one force-on-force drill, the study said Navy SEALs were able to make a hole in a chain-link fence surrounding the department's Rocky Flats complex near Denver and steal enough plutonium to build several nuclear bombs. The SEALs, the Navy's elite commando force, were discovered only as they we leaving.
During one drill at Los Alamos, mock terrorists gained control of sufficient nuclear materials that if detonated would have endangered major parts of New Mexico, Colorado and other downwind areas.
During another exercise at Los Alamos, U.S. Army Special Forces, using a Home Depot garden cart, were able to steal enough weapons grade uranium to construct numerous nuclear weapons.
The study also found that in six of seven exercises in late 1998, forces from the department's Transportation Security Division failed to protect the nuclear cargo they were guarding because they had "inadequate weapons and insufficient numbers, as well as poorly conceived tactics." The Transportation Security Division moves nuclear weapons, along with weapons-grade plutonium and uranium, from one department site to another using public highways.
While the study said the department had addressed the vulnerabilities found in the mock attacks, problems persist.
"New as well as recurring vulnerabilities continue to plague DOE's nuclear security program," the study said.
As the Cold War wound down, the study said, the number of security forces at the department's weapons sites have been cut by 40 percent, from 5,640 in 1992 to about 3,500 today, while the inventory of weapons-grade material has increased by 30 percent.
"The increase has resulted from the dismantling of nuclear weapons and the receipt of nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union," the study said. "During the same time the threat of terrorism has increased."
"An issue that exacerbates security problems is the age of these sites and the decay of infrastructure," the study said. "Oak Ridge, Savannah River, Hanford and Los Alamos, for example, were all built for the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. The isolated location of these sites made sense at the time for safety and security reasons. Now, population growth and more mobility have made a number of the sites extremely difficult to protect."
Charlene Pugh, a spokeswoman for the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, declined to comment on the study's findings. Pugh added, however, that since Sept. 11 security has been increased.
The study said the best way to avoid problems would be to consolidate all the nuclear materials at several more easily protected sites, such as an underground munitions storage complex at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico or the highly secure Device Assembly Facility at the Nevada test site.