Energy Department officials Friday effectively shut down part of the nation's nuclear weapons complex, fearful that security lapses discovered at Los Alamos National Laboratory had occurred elsewhere.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham ordered two dozen national laboratories and several other nuclear weapons facilities to stop using classified information stored on computer disks, portable hard drives and tapes that employees can easily remove from work.
The biggest effect will be on the Energy Department's nuclear weapons facilities in California, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Such a shutdown has already been in effect for nine days at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
The Energy Department's doubts about security began earlier this month, when Los Alamos officials reported they could not locate two computer disks that contained classified information. So far, they have declined to say what is on the disks, though members of Congress have suggested the loss represents a serious security breach.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
Nuclear weapons research -- A headline on a Section A article Saturday about the nation's nuclear weapons complex said facilities had been closed. In fact, work at the sites had been curtailed, but the sites themselves had not been shut down. In addition, a Section A article Sunday on the same topic referred to Energy Department headquarters in the Forestall Building. It is the James Forrestal Building.
Officials said they had no idea how long the order would continue or how many employees would have their work disrupted. Some labs and weapons plants said that hundreds and potentially thousands of their employees would be affected by the order, which takes effect Monday.
It is also unclear how the order would affect national security. Energy officials said they were still assessing the potential disruption to their commitments with the Defense Department for technical support for nuclear weapons. Pentagon officials declined to comment.
Under Abraham's order, sites cannot resume normal operations until they review security procedures, conduct inventories of all classified data stored on removable devices and can certify that the data is stored under proper security. Workers will be held accountable for any future problems, he warned.
Outside experts said Abraham's unprecedented order would curtail operations across the Energy Department's chain of laboratories, computing centers, accelerators and factories that employ more than 100,000 workers.
Abraham's order was based on growing concern that the Energy Department had a systemwide vulnerability to losing important bomb secrets stored on removable devices, known as Classified Removable Electronic Media, or CREM. Such devices allow a person to download massive quantities of data that can be easily concealed.
"The situation at [Los Alamos lab] suggests that we must minimize the risk of human error or malfeasance to a much greater extent," Abraham said in a statement. "Thus, while we have no evidence that the problems currently being investigated are present elsewhere, we have a responsibility to take all necessary action to prevent such problems from occurring at all."
The Energy Department is responsible for as many as 8,000 nuclear warheads in the Pentagon's inventory that require periodic inspections and maintenance. Abraham's statement did not address how the department would cope with the lost work.
"Because we do not know the exact duration of the stand-down, it is not possible to provide information on the exact impact on our work for DOD," said Jeanne Lapotto, Energy Department spokeswoman.
Los Alamos' missing disks were supposed to be in a safe accessible by 11 employees, who along with eight others were suspended from their jobs Thursday by Lab Director George P. "Pete" Nanos. On July 15, Nanos halted all classified operations at the lab, and he suspended all regular work activities July 16.
Since then, top Energy officials have been reviewing operations across the nuclear weapons complex.
The use of computers by Energy Department scientists has grown more critical since the U.S. stopped testing nuclear weapons in 1992. Scientists today depend on computer simulations to ensure nuclear bombs are reliable and safe.
The department is spending nearly $800 million a year on computing and is building several computing sites the size of football fields, according to a recent analysis by Chris Payne, a nuclear weapons expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Scott Larson, a former FBI official who investigated the Wen Ho Lee security case at Los Alamos, said Friday that law enforcement officials were always concerned about the potential for employees to use CREM to walk out with large quantities of data. Larson, managing director at the Stroz Friedberg security consulting firm, added that nuclear weapons sites were under almost daily attack by hackers trying to obtain electronic data.
Energy labs were trying to assess the order's effect Friday.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has 876 employees who use portable devices. The effect on Livermore would depend on the length of the suspension, which lab officials were still trying to clarify with Washington officials, said spokesman David Schwoegler.