By Adam Zagorin
Time in partnership with CNN
May 12, 2008
If you were a terrorist looking for weapons-grade nuclear material in
America, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory might be a good
place to start. At the core of the nuclear-weapons research facility
about an hour's drive from San Francisco stands the "Superblock," a
collection of buildings surrounded by multi-story steel-mesh fencing, a
no-man's-land, electronic security gear, armed guards and cables to
prevent a helicopter landing on the roof. These defenses are in place
largely to protect Building 332, a repository for roughly 2,000 pounds
of deadly plutonium and volatile, weapons-grade uranium - enough fissile
material to build at least 300 nuclear weapons. But a recent simulated
terror attack tested those defenses, and sources tell TIME that the
results were not reassuring.
One night several weeks ago, according to TIME's sources, a commando
team posing as terrorists attacked and penetrated the lab, quickly
overpowering its defenses to reach its "objective" - a mock payload of
fissile material. The exercise highlighted a number of serious security
shortcomings at Livermore, sources say, including the failure of a
hydraulic system essential to operating an extremely lethal Gatling gun
that protects the facility. Experts contacted by TIME - including
congressional staff from both parties informed of the episode, and
experts personally familiar with safeguards at Livermore - all said that
the test amounts to an embarrassment to those responsible for securing
the nation's nuclear facilities, and that it required immediate steps to
correct what some called the most dangerous security weaknesses ever
found at the lab.
Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman was quickly informed of the episode,
along with other senior officials in the U.S. nuclear and national
security apparatus. "People who know about this are very concerned; they
are not happy," said one senior congressional aide.
"It is essential to prevent terrorists from accessing nuclear materials
at Livermore," said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the
Project on Government Oversight, an independent nonprofit that recently
issued a study of the lab's security. "Suicidal terrorists would not
need to steal the fissile material, they could simply detonate it as
part of an improvised nuclear device right on the spot." Some 7 million
people live within a 50-mile radius of the laboratory - a fact that has
prompted at least one panel of experts to recommend moving its
nuclear-weapons material elsewhere.
According to a former senior officer familiar with the details of
security at Livermore, simulated attacks are staged approximately every
12 months. The attack team's objective is usually to penetrate the
"Superblock," after which the attackers are timed to determine whether
they can hold their ground long enough to construct a crude "dirty bomb"
that could, in theory, be detonated immediately, or can buy themselves
enough time to fabricate a rudimentary nuclear device, approximating the
destructive power of the low-yield weapons dropped on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki in 1945. A third option in the simulation is for the attackers
to abscond with the nuclear material into the heavily populated San
Francisco Bay area.
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