A U.S. congressman is criticizing the Energy Department, saying it has failed to provide adequate security at the country's nuclear facilities. The criticism, which U.S. energy officials reject, is based on a report by a private government oversight group that says terrorists could gain access to materials and build and detonate a nuclear device within minutes.
Democratic Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts says that in more than half of the security tests at Energy Department facilities before September 11, federal agents posing as terrorists succeeded in their mock missions.
Mr. Markey told a Washington news conference Wednesday this shows the ease with which terrorists could penetrate a facility and make a so-called "dirty bomb." In such a device, radioactive material is blown up and spread by conventional explosives. A thermonuclear reaction does not occur. The congressman says even more alarming is the possibility that terrorists could rapidly build and detonate a homemade nuclear bomb.
"Which could release explosive nuclear yield," Rep. Markey said. "A group of suicidal terrorists could do this using propellants, conventional explosives, or even possibly just by throwing or shooting one piece of weapons-grade uranium at another in order to quickly start the chain reaction. I have been informed that the result could be equivalent to that of a detonation of a small nuclear weapon."
Mr. Markey is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and he co-chairs the Bipartisan Task Force on Nonproliferation.
The Department of Energy calls the allegations "false and misleading" and denies that security is lax. The administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, retired Air Force general John Gordon, says the charges of a 50 percent failure rate in DOE security tests are not true.
Peter Stockton is with the government oversight group that conducted the nuclear security study last year, the Project on Government Oversight. Mr. Stockton describes a mock attack by Navy SEALS, special operations troops, at Rocky Flats National Laboratory outside Denver, Colorado.
"They [the mock terrorists] went through the fence, they went to the building, they got hands on the [mock nuclear] material, they made it out [of the facility] without anybody being killed," he said. "None of the [Navy] SEALS were killed."
Mr. Stockton's group also asserts that vaults storing nuclear materials may not be adequately protected against attack from large commercial aircraft or large truck bombs. The group says some of these vaults have been found unlocked and open for eight hours a day, five days a week.
The Energy Department's General Gordon says Mr. Stockton's group used old data in its report, which contributes to misleading conclusions. He says the Energy Department aggressively protects its people and facilities, and takes formidable security measures to deter potential attackers. The general says nuclear material is not at risk at department facilities.