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Natsios Young Architects

12 August 2002
Source of maps and photos: (color) and TerraServer (monochrome).

The Wall Street Journal, August 12, 2002

U.S. Officials Urge the Relocation Of Los Alamos Nuclear Materials


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 Nevada desert.

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 terrorism.

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 lethal radiation.

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 below).

Device Assembly Facility:

Nevada Test Site

Device Assembly Facility

March 2001


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 Energy’s Nevada Operations office was charged with conducting the nation’s 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 Energy’s Science Based Stockpile Stewardship Program, which includes assembly work to support subcritical (no-nuclear yield) experiments being conducted at the Nevada Test Site.

Facility Design

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 Gertie’s 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 stockpile.


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.




Following DAF photos by USGS, 8 Aug 1998.

Note double perimeter security fencing usually found at nuclear weapons storage areas.

Los Alamos National Laboratory
Technical Area 18

Following TA-18 photos by USGS 8 Oct 1996