Departing DOE chief describes improvements to nuclear weapons complex

Nearing the end of his tenure as U.S. Energy secretary, Spencer Abraham this week detailed the progress his agency has made in improving the security of U.S. nuclear weapons-related sites.

"My philosophy on security has been quite simple," Abraham told departmental security personnel Tuesday. "When it comes to the security of a department with the responsibilities ours has - of maintaining the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, providing nuclear propulsion for the Navy and coordinating global nonproliferation efforts - there is no room for error."

Among the accomplishments listed by Abraham was an increase in annual spending for security-related activities from less than $1 billion to almost $2 billion. "We have, almost literally, doubled our efforts to make the department's facilities safe and secure," he said.

Abraham also noted the two major revisions to the department's Design Basis Threat (DBT) conducted since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - once in May 2003 and again in October 2004. While specific details of the threat assessment are classified, it is generally considered to represent the type of terrorist threat facility guard forces must be able to defend against.

"These adjustments in the DBT represented significant increases in the level of protection afforded to our most sensitive national security assets," he said.

In contrast, Abraham said that the Design Basis Threat in place just prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, which was approved in 1995, "was at its lowest level since its initial inception, and paled in comparison to [threat] levels played out in the 9/11 attacks."

He blamed cost concerns, in part, to the lower assumed threat to nuclear sites prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. "In essence, the lower the threat, the lower the security posture to defeat the threat, thereby the lower the routine operational cost to implement."

The Energy Department has also made "substantial progress" in consolidating the number of sites that possess nuclear materials in order to reduce possible terrorist targets, Abraham said. As part of that effort, the department began moving materials last fall from a site at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to a more secure facility at the Nevada Test Site.

So far, the department has been able to close three sites that formerly housed nuclear materials, and has identified at least another four to be decommissioned, including facilities at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, according to Abraham.

In his remarks, Abraham said continued efforts were needed to improve the quality of departmental security forces to become "an elite fighting force." He also said that he has organized a commission on examining new security technologies for possible use by the department.

The Energy Department is also considering whether site security forces should be federalized, managed by one contractor with individual contracts for each site or by one contractor with a single contract for all sites, Abraham said.

Peter Stockton, a senior investigator with the Project on Government Oversight watchdog group, today praised the emphasis Abraham and his retiring deputy, Kyle McSlarrow, have placed on security during their tenure.

"They're as good as I've ever seen," he said.

Stockton called on President George W. Bush's nominee to replace Abraham, Samuel Bodman, to continue once he takes office with many of the efforts launched by his predecessor, including the further consolidation of nuclear materials.

"That'd be a huge plus to the complex," Stockton said.