The security forces hired to protect the Energy Department's nuclear labs are unprepared for an assault by a group of suicidal terrorists, according to Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and six whistleblowers who have exposed security gaps at the nation's nuclear labs. Flanked by whistleblowers at a Capitol Hill press conference Tuesday, Markey painted a grim picture of a nuclear security system that has been unresponsive to demands that it beef up security for more than two decades. "Unfortunately, security is so lax at some [Energy] nuclear weapons sites where these materials are kept, that terrorists could find what they needed to launch a nuclear attack right here in the United States of America," he said. Markey outlined a scenario in which terrorists assault a facility where weapons-grade nuclear material is stored. After breaking into the compound, he said, terrorists have the tools they need to make a crude nuclear device. "It takes about one large soda can's worth of weapon's-grade plutonium or a volleyball's worth of weapons-grade uranium to make a crude nuclear weapon," Markey said. The Energy Department does not handle security at its nuclear facilities directly. Rather, the contractors that run nuclear labs, such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories, hire private security guards. On Tuesday, Markey sent a 23-page letter to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, demanding an account of the agency's security program at nuclear facilities. In the letter, Markey exposes numerous failings in how the agency prepares its contractor workforce to protect nuclear facilities. The Energy Department "uses Army Special Forces and Navy SEAL units to test security through the use of force-on-force exercises. Even though the [Energy] contractor force knows both the test date and the test design in advance, and even though the tests may not assume a level of terrorist threat that is realistic given the events of Sept. 11, [Energy] contractor security forces reportedly still fail these exercises more than 50 percent of the time," he wrote. Markey said he was alarmed by vaults built to store weapons-grade uranium and plutonium that are reportedly "constructed out of drywall." He also decried the agency's treatment of whistleblowers. When security guards came forward with information about security failings, they were either fired or subject to retaliation by management. The agency, Markey said, "has a long history of ignoring or retaliating against whistleblowers." Whistleblower allegations about security gaps at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is operated by the University of California, have reportedly been confirmed by the report "Inspection of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Protective Force and Special Response Team," issued by the Energy Department's Office of Inspector General in December 2001. The report is classified. Two Lawrence Livermore security workers have been fired while two more have resigned from the lab since their allegations were made public. Markey's comments came just days after Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard Meserve admitted that nuclear power plants are not prepared to withstand or protect against a suicide terrorist attack similar to those of Sept. 11.