Monday, October 29, 2007

DoE will miss legislatively-mandated security deadlines

Over a year after congress told the Department of Energy to get their house in order and fortify the security measures around the nations stores of fissile materials (and over five years after Condi Rice breathlessly warned us that that we didn't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud) at least five of the eleven nuclear facilities in question will miss their deadlines - some of them by years.

The DoE has reportedly delayed compliance at some facilities with an eye to consolidating material handling to fewer sites. However, the Government Accountability Office testified in a Senate briefing that that project was also likely to run way behind schedule. Of course, there is an element of politics that comes into play. Everyone agrees that centralizing the nuclear fuel supply is a good idea, but Robert Alvarez, who served as an adviser to the Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration explains why actually getting it done is like herding cats: “There’s a lot of pushback about moving fissile materials from a site, because then you lose a portion of your budget and prestige.”

[keep reading]

Danielle Brian, executive director for the private group The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) was prepared to hold the DoE accountable. She admitted that congress had set a tight deadline, but maintained that if the Energy Department “had taken seriously consolidating and making this an expedited effort, they wouldn’t be having these problems now.”

...Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has taken a particular interest in nuclear security, said in a statement, “The department seems to think that the terrorist threat to its nuclear facilities is no more serious than a Halloween prank, as evidenced by its failure — more than six years after the 9/11 attacks — to do what it must to keep our stores of nuclear-weapons-grade materials secure.” Mr. Markey said the delay was unsurprising but unacceptable.

One site that will miss its deadline by years is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which holds a large stock of weapons-usable uranium. The laboratory plans to dilute the uranium, but that will take until 2015, the auditors found.

Two other sites that will miss their deadlines are operated by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for weapons security. The agency was established in 1999 after a number of security breaches in the weapons complex, and in January its director was forced to resign because of other security lapses.

Now we all know that practically the entire damned country went collectively insane about 10:45 eastern on 11 September 2001, and only now is society starting to get their metaphorical meds adjusted.

But by the evening of 12 September, my husband (a former Air Force nuke guy) and I were talking about getting a handle on the fissile material that is out there - way too much for either of us to be comfortable.

A mole or two of uranium gone missing is the stuff my nightmares are made of (and with an atomic weight of 238, a mole ain't much volume, but it's a lot of mass.)

So when the Department of Energy changed it's “design basis threat” for weapons facilities, we thought that was good news. (A design basis threat is the level of attacking force a facility is prepared to defend against.) These details always, of course, remain classified, but the new protocols specified a larger, better armed and more capable commando-type group of attackers.

To underscore the preparations and their importance, Congress passed into federal statute that DoE weapons facilities must submit plans detailing the steps they would take to meet the requirements. Knowint the department's history of missed deadlines, the Congress inserted into the law the specification that all delays and missed deadlines be approved by either the Secretary of Energy or the deputy secretary. The DoE reports that they have finally managed to meet the standards set in the 2003 dbt protocol changes, but are still lagging on meeting the newer standards that were adopted in 2005, although they are working toward them.

According to declassified portions of the DoE's first report to the Congress, which took place in 2006 said that more than $420 million had been spent in an aggressive program that up-armored the vehicles security personnel used, and provided them larger caliber guns. The DoE told Congress at that time that six of eleven sites will meet the 2008 deadline, but the GAO says that one of the six, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, will fail to meet the deadline.

Kinda makes you shake your head in wonderment that we ever managed to get our act together to do the whole Manhattan Project/Race to the Bomb in the first place, doesn't it?

Then the wonderment passes, and you're left feeling pissed. One thing is for damned sure - if that hyperventilating scenario of Condi's comes true, we'll know who to blame - a feckless administration that lacks the fortitude and the political will to even take the security of the nations fissile materials seriously.