Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said Friday that consolidation of nuclear material to fewer sites is "one of the surest ways" to increase protection of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium from terrorists.
In a speech prepared for security personnel at the Savannah River nuclear site in South Carolina, Abraham said that the possibility of replacing private guards with a federal security force at Energy Department weapons sites is being seriously discussed. He also said he is considering creating an elite security unit to guard high-priority facilities.
"Because the stakes are so high everything is on the table," Abraham said.
Currently private guards protect federal nuclear research laboratory and other facilities that are part of the vast nuclear weapons complex, including facilities holding plutonium and highly enriched uranium used in nuclear warheads.
The Energy Department has been under growing criticism from some members of Congress and public interest watchdog groups for failing to adequately improve security to meet the increased threats made apparent by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and on the Pentagon.
Next week, a House committee has scheduled another hearing into reports of security shortcomings in the department's effort to protect nuclear material. Recently congressional auditors said that the security upgrades ordered at the Energy Department sites after the Sept. 11 attacks may not be fully in place for another five years. The department hopes to finish them by the end of 2006.
A private watchdog group also has produced a number of "whistleblowers" who claim that the private guards at weapons facilities have poor training and morale.
Abraham announced what he called "sweeping new initiatives" to improve security in the nuclear weapons complex. The Energy Department develops nuclear weapons and maintains the nation's stockpile.
"Simply put (these materials) must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands," said Abraham.
Abraham acknowledged "security lapses" at some facilities such as lost keys for secure areas. While calling such incidents rare, he said "they are unacceptable" and that failure to address such problems would not be tolerated.
Abraham also said he would:
Provide new, more consistent training and more simulated attacks to test guards.
Speed recruitment of technical personnel to deal with cyber security and new security technologies.
Examine where nuclear weapons material might be consolidated within sites and remove it from sites where security is difficult.
Last month, lawmakers at a congressional hearing urged the department to consolidate weapon-grade material.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said it "should be immediately obvious" that too many facilities are holding nuclear material.
Abraham said the department will consolidate these materials in fewer places and won't rule out moving plutonium and other weapons-usable material from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Lab officials oppose such a move on grounds they need the material for research.
He said that a program already is underway to transport plutonium from the Los Alamos National Laboratory to the Nevada Test Site, and he announced that within three years weapons-usable uranium now at the Sandia National Laboratory will be moved to a permanent storage site. Both facilities are in New Mexico.
He noted the department also is building a central facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee to consolidate highly enriched uranium within that sprawling site.
Sensitive nuclear material also is kept by the department at the Pantex Weapons plant in Texas, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and facilities in Idaho and Nevada.