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Energy Dept.'s Nuclear Security Fears Told

Terrorism: Amid public assurances, an official warned that facilities need more funding to thwart possible attacks.

April 22, 2002|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Department of Energy in late March warned the White House in writing that its facilities, which include sites containing nuclear materials, remain vulnerable to terrorist attack because of the administration's refusal to fund critical security needs.

The letter, dated March 28, was released Sunday by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who has been a frequent and vocal critic of the current levels of security at the nation's nuclear sites.

Concerns about safeguarding nuclear facilities have been high since intelligence reports indicated that Al Qaeda operatives, interested in exploiting U.S. security weaknesses, consider such sites desirable targets for attack or infiltration.

The private correspondence, from the Energy Department's chief financial officer to a top official at the White House Office of Management and Budget, marks the first indication of alarm about security at such facilities by Bush administration officials, who have repeatedly offered public assurances that security is sufficient to meet heightened demands.

"The Department's remaining safeguards and security budgets are not sufficient to implement security posture requirements that appropriately respond to the September 11th attacks," said the Energy Department's Bruce M. Carnes, who cautioned that his agency was at a "crucial juncture."

In the letter addressed to Marcus Peacock, a senior OMB official, Carnes said he was "disconcerted" by the OMB's decision not to provide additional funds. He was told, he added, that the OMB decided not to support the request because a revised threat analysis required of the Energy Department had not been completed.

"This isn't a tenable position for you to take, in my view," Carnes said. "We are not operating, and cannot operate under the pre-September 11 Design Basis Threat . . . and you have not provided us the resources to do so."

Carnes, who did not specify how much additional money was being sought, also expressed dismay that he was not given the chance to argue the department's position personally.

Congress approved $111 million in supplemental funding for security at nuclear weapon laboratories after the terrorist attacks, and the White House is seeking nearly $700 million more for lab security in the 2003 budget.

Markey on Sunday requested President Bush's "immediate assistance" in ensuring the protection of the nation's nuclear facilities.

The congressman told Bush in a letter dated today that his concerns lie not only in the potential of nuclear materials to be stolen, but also in the likelihood that nuclear sites could be targeted for attack.

"I am stunned by the apparent failure of the White House to provide sufficient resources to adequately protect this country's nuclear weapons facilities from terrorist attack," Markey said. Markey emphasized that 10 Energy Department sites--including facilities near urban locations such as California's Bay Area and Denver--reportedly contain sufficient amounts of weapon-grade plutonium and uranium to make a crude atomic bomb.

"The administration has requested almost $8 billion for missile defense, which won't do anything to prevent suicidal terrorists from attacking nuclear facilities and blowing up dirty bombs or homemade nuclear weapons," Markey said Sunday. "But when DOE finally admits security is not what it should be, OMB refuses to help."

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