12 August 2002
Source of maps and photos: Mapquest.com
(color) and TerraServer
The Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2002
U.S. Officials Urge the Relocation Of Los Alamos Nuclear Materials
By JOHN J. FIALKA
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- Heightened security concerns have convinced the Department
of Energy that weapons-grade materials at one of its most heavily guarded
nuclear facilities should be transferred to a remote military site in the
The decision comes after a series of war games demonstrated that a small
group armed with military weapons could penetrate the Los Alamos National
Laboratory's robust fortifications and expensively equipped security force
-- and even snatch its portable stocks of plutonium and uranium.
In a letter to Everet Beckner, who heads defense programs at the DOE's National
Nuclear Security Agency, John C. Browne, director of Los Alamos in New Mexico,
said laboratory and DOE officials agree that a transfer to the Nevada Test
Site is "the best overall decision to meet the post-September 11th challenges."
The lab is run by the University of California, which hires private contractors
to guard the facilities.
Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the security agency, said no final decision
on the transfer can be made until the NNSA files an environmental-impact
statement supporting it. But he confirmed the contents of the letter, dated
June 28, and said the Nevada site -- located within the Nellis Air Force
Range -- is now the agency's "preferred alternative." Peter Stockton, a
nuclear-weapons security expert for the Project
on Government Oversight, which obtained a copy of the letter, called
it "the most sensible" step DOE has taken to counter its vulnerability to
The decision comes as the Bush administration's director of homeland security,
Tom Ridge, holds sector-by-sector interviews with officials from industries
especially prone to attack -- water, chemical and nuclear-power plant sites
among them. Those talks are part of an effort to get them to upgrade their
security in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
TA-18 [see below], as the site within
the Los Alamos complex is known, shows how potential security problems can
quietly mushroom. When it was established in the bottom of a steep, remote
canyon in 1944, the main concern of its planners was getting it completed
quickly and safely. Scientists used it to model various types of nuclear
weapons: They employed a stock of plutonium and highly enriched uranium in
varying shapes and sizes to determine how and when a weapon of a certain
configuration would start a chain reaction, and release a sudden burst of
But in the 1970s, after a public road was built near TA-18, security experts
began wondering how they might protect it against terrorists.
DOE and its contractors use what they call "layered defenses" to protect
critical facilities. Nuclear materials at TA-18 are kept in a vault; the
last layer of protection involved putting the blocks into canisters that
were thought to be too heavy for an attacker to carry away.
In the early 1990s the DOE began holding so-called force-on-force exercises,
sometimes bringing in small Army Special Forces units to play the role of
attackers. During a midnight exercise on April 12, 1997, these attackers
overwhelmed the guards, penetrated the vault and used a simple garden cart,
found at the site, to trundle off some simulated canisters.
That outcome provoked a spasm of security upgrades, more guards and more
guard training, and a surge of new equipment including armor-plated Humvees
equipped with 50-caliber machine guns. Security costs for the small facility
ballooned to between $12 million and $18 million a year, all of it ultimately
borne by taxpayers.
On Oct. 5, 2000, the beefed-up defenders of TA-18 suffered a second setback.
The mock attackers mounted snipers on the surrounding hills to "kill" arriving
guard reinforcements. Meanwhile, the "terrorists" penetrated the vault and
had enough time and the proper simulated equipment to blow up the nuclear
materials with conventional explosives, creating a reaction that would, at
the least, poison the surrounding area with long-lived radioactive debris.
After that, the internal debate revived over whether to move TA-18 to the
Nevada Test Site, to a building called the Device Assembly Facility once
used by to assemble experimental nuclear weapons before they were tested.
It has been vacant since 1992 when the tests stopped, but it has state-of-the-art
defenses. Besides being extremely well fortified, the facility sits on a
vast plain that makes it easy to spot approaching intruders.
Until recently, officials at Los Alamos preferred to keep TA-18 closer to
the weapons laboratories, and the technicians and scientists who worked there
also resisted the move, preferring to live in the large New Mexico scientific
community rather than relocate to the Nevada desert.
An unsigned note that accompanied the Browne letter indicates the scientists
were still resisting this year, requesting "multiple studies with long time
periods." The note suggests Dr. Beckner, the NNSA's third-ranking official,
was tired of their arguments. He wanted the most sensitive nuclear material
removed from TA-18 "ASAP."
Los Alamos Test Area 18 (see
Device Assembly Facility:
Nevada Test Site
Device Assembly Facility
The Device Assembly Facility (DAF), offers one of the safest, most secure
locations anywhere in the United States weapons complex to conduct nuclear
explosive operations. Other than the Pantex
Plant in Amarillo, Texas, the Nevada Test Site is the only location in
the country where special nuclear material such as plutonium can be mated
with high explosives
For 41 years, nuclear weapons testing was the primary mission at the Nevada
Test Site. The U.S. Department of Energys Nevada Operations office
was charged with conducting the nations nuclear testing program in
a safe, secure, and efficient manner. These operations included assembly,
disassembly or modification, staging, transportation, maintenance, repair,
retrofit, and testing.
The DAF was designed and built for the purpose of assembling Los Alamos and
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory nuclear test devices prior to placing
them underground for testing. The mission of the DAF, however, has evolved
since the nuclear weapons testing moratorium began on October 2, 1992. Currently
the United States is not conducting nuclear tests. However, the U.S. Department
of Energy has been directed by the President to maintain an underground test
readiness program in case it is in the supreme national interest
to resume nuclear weapons testing.
Instead of doing underground test assembly work for which the facility was
originally intended, the DAF now accommodates other hands-on activities involving
high explosives and special nuclear material. These projects are an integral
part of the U.S. Department of Energys Science Based Stockpile Stewardship
Program, which includes assembly work to support subcritical (no-nuclear
yield) experiments being conducted at the Nevada Test Site.
The DAF is a collection of 30 individual steel-reinforced buildings connected
by a rectangular racetrack corridor. The entire complex, covered by compacted
earth, spans an area of 100,000 square feet (size of eleven football fields).
Safety systems include fire detection and suppression, chemical detection,
separated and filtered ventilation, special electrical grounding, personnel
air supplies, automatic room isolation, and a system of loudspeakers, alarms,
and warning lights. Blast doors which are designed to mitigate the propagation
of an accidental explosion are interlocked so that one door must be closed
before the other can be opened.
Most isolated of the operational buildings are five assembly cells
for activities involving uncaged conventional high explosives and special
nuclear material. Four high bays and three assembly bays provide facilities
for less hazardous operations. Five staging bunkers provide ample space for
the interim storage of nuclear components and high explosives.
Finally, all materials packages arrive or depart the DAF through either of
two shipping or receiving bays. The support buildings include three small
vaults for storing small quantities of high explosives, or special nuclear
material; two decontamination areas; and an administration area containing
office space, a conference area, personnel changing and shower rooms, and
a machine shop. In addition, two buildings provide laboratory space, one
for conducting instrumentation and environmental testing and the other for
controlling remote operations of an adjacent assembly cell.
Assembly Cells (Gravel Gerties)
The assembly cells which have 12-inch-thick concrete walls are whimsically
called Gravel Gerties, after a 1950s Dick Tracy comic-strip character, because
the roof is overlaid with nearly 25-feet of gravel, said to resemble the
original Gravel Gerties curly gray hair. Modeled after the structure
at Pantex Plant, where hands-on assembly and disassembly of U.S. nuclear
weapons takes place, they provide the maximum environmental and personnel
protection in the event of an inadvertent highexplosive detonation. The cells
are designed to absorb the blast pressure from a detonation of up to 192
kilograms (422 pounds) of plastic-based explosives equivalent to 250 kilograms
or 550 pounds of TNT, or approximately one-fifth of the explosive energy
released in the World Trade Center bombing. Should a detonation occur, the
Gravel Gertie would minimize release of nuclear material and its spread to
other areas of the facility and to outside areas by 99.5 percent.
A National Resource
The DAF is a state-of-the-art national asset. The design of the facility
and its safety features makes the DAF well suited to address new national
challenges-both predicted and as yet unforeseen in maintaining the nuclear
The DAF located about 17 miles from the southern edge of the Nevada
Test Site provides a substantial safety zone for the general public
and adds to the security of the facility. The Nevada Test Site is located
in Nye County, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The nearest town to the test
site is Amargosa Valley, which lies about 26 miles to the southwest of the
DAF, and supports a population of about 760.