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U.S. seeks to make stolen nukes useless

Bush has told weapons labs to render bombs terrorist-proof. But critics say theft risk is low and more urgent issues are being ignored.

December 05, 2006|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

LIVERMORE, CALIF. — In response to a secret order from President Bush, the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories are developing technology to make the weapons virtually impossible to use if they fall into the wrong hands.

The security system will be part of a new generation of nuclear weapons, approved formally last week by a special panel of the Defense and Energy departments.

A nuclear bomb equipped with such safeguards could theoretically be left on the streets of Los Angeles or Manhattan and terrorists would be unable, even given months of tinkering, to detonate it. Scientists say they are working on technology that would destroy every component inside -- including the plutonium and uranium -- if anyone tampered with it.

But the 3-year-old effort, known as National Security Presidential Directive 28, has drawn strong criticism from many nuclear weapons experts, who doubt that absolute safeguards are necessary or even possible. Instead, they say, the federal government should fix known security weaknesses at bomb labs and factories.

The nation has 6,000 nuclear warheads, on missiles and in military depots in places as disparate as Texas, North Dakota and Europe. They all have electronic locks or other safeguards, known as use controls, that pose a tough challenge to terrorists.

But the new plan aims for a dramatic improvement.

The big leap would involve the self-destruction of the weapon without dispersing radioactivity or causing an explosion. The new system would be able to destroy the electronic and mechanical components and to render the plutonium and uranium materials unusable in any crude improvised device.

How? That's secret. But one possibility is that the bomb would contain a powerful acid or other chemical that would poison the uranium and plutonium. The resulting sludge theoretically could be reprocessed, but only in a highly specialized chemical-processing factory.

And, the thinking goes, terrorists who had access to such a factory probably wouldn't need to steal a bomb.

The nation's two nuclear weapons laboratories -- Lawrence Livermore in California and Los Alamos in New Mexico -- are competing to design the new generation of bomb, known as the reliable replacement warhead. The Nuclear Weapons Council, a panel of top Defense and Energy officials, could select a winner as soon as this week.

The use controls on nuclear weapons are among the most secret parts of a very secret enterprise. Scientists call them the "inner workings of the bank vault door."

The national security order Bush signed in 2003 -- the contents of which have not been made public -- has only a single unclassified sentence: the instruction that the labs make it impossible for terrorists to detonate a bomb without its "remanufacture." That clause allows for the remote possibility that terrorists could take the remnants and reassemble them into a new weapon.

"It is essential that we make sure our weapons are impossible for terrorists to use," said Bruce Goodwin, chief of nuclear weapons design at Livermore. The weapons produced during the Cold War, he said, were not designed for an age of terrorism.

"There was no motivation for the Red Army to send in a suicide squad to steal an American weapon," Goodwin said. "They had plenty of their own. There is tremendous incentive to certain people who don't have nuclear weapons to terrorize this nation by stealing one."

Before Sept. 11, security experts had not considered the prospect of a nuclear weapons scientist leading a suicide squad to seize and detonate a U.S. nuclear weapon.

But critics say a terrorist seizing a U.S. bomb is the least likely form of future nuclear terrorism. A more probable scenario, they say, is the theft of highly enriched uranium or plutonium that could be fashioned into a crude nuclear device, or the smuggling of a complete nuclear bomb into the U.S.

"The real threat is the uranium and plutonium materials that are spread across the country in totally inappropriate places and inadequate facilities," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington group that has long criticized security at Energy Department sites. "So, rather than fixing the problem they have, they are trying to fix a problem they don't have."

The Energy Department stores weapons-grade materials at many sites, including Livermore, Los Alamos, the Y-12 plant in Tennessee, the Nevada Test Site north of Las Vegas and the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas. The department is trying to upgrade protection, but some of its sites fail to meet post-Sept. 11 security standards.

"The secret to avoiding an unauthorized nuclear detonation is maintaining custody of the weapon," said Bob Peurifoy, a retired vice president at Sandia National Laboratory who helped to pioneer use controls during the Cold War. "If a terrorist gains possession of a nuclear weapon because of some fault in custody, I assure you that sooner or later there will be a nuclear detonation."

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