Lax security at university research reactors and Los Alamos criticised by congressional watchdog

Nuclear facilities at US universities and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) have come under fire from a US congressional watchdog for lax security and breaches of safety rules.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office says that - despite some improvement since Los Alamos was placed under new management in 2006 - safety and security lapses persist at the Department of Energy (DOE) lab. A second GAO report says poor security measures at nuclear research reactors could make them more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The GAO catalogues 57 security incidents at Los Alamos ’involving the compromise or potential compromise of classified information’ and 19 breaches of nuclear safety rules. In 2006, for example, a plutonium-239 sample popped from its mount in that facility, hitting and contaminating an employee before falling to the floor and a year later, the work at LANLS’s plutonium facility, known as TA-55, had to be halted after questions were raised over whether a vault containing plutonium and other dangerous materials was adequately shielded. 

Just 2 of the lab’s 19 nuclear facilities were operating under compliant safety documentation, as of November 2007, the GAO says.

"Our numbers are trending in a positive way - that doesn’t mean that the problem is solved, but we are working hard to maintain that progress" - Kevin Roark


Nevertheless, the GAO report acknowledges that the lab has improved safety and security - especially since a new consortium took over management from the University of California in June 2006. The number of security incidents rose from 14 in 2003 to a peak of 18 in 2005, and then fell all the way down to four in 2007.

In terms of events that pose the most serious threats to US national security, critical DOE assets, or human health, the numbers fell from 7 in 2003 to 3 in 2007, after peaking at 14 in 2005. In addition, safety accidents have been more than halved at the lab - falling from 8 in 2003 to 3 in 2007. 

’Our numbers are trending in a positive way - that doesn’t mean that the problem is solved, but we are working hard to maintain that progress,’ said LANL spokesman Kevin Roark.

However, the GAO notes that it is too soon to tell if the decline in the number of security incidents is more than temporary.

Reactor lapses

Meanwhile, in a second report, the GAO has questioned the security of nuclear research reactors licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). There are 37 research reactors in the US, most of which are on college campuses, and 33 are licensed and regulated by NRC.

Site inspections revealed potential shortcomings at some research reactors. In one case, for example, there was unlocked and unalarmed access leading directly into the reactor room.

"These reactors underwent increased security after 9/11, and we constantly review the threat and adjust security as necessary" - Eliot Brenner

GAO is urging NRC to reassess the consequences of terrorist attacks on research reactors using assumptions that incorporate a broader range of outside expert opinion on reactor security and terrorist capabilities.

But, in response, the NRC - which strongly disputes the GAO’s findings - has issued a statement that calls the report ’misleading’ and ’incomplete’.

’These reactors underwent increased security after 9/11, and we constantly review the threat and adjust security as necessary,’ agency spokesman Eliot Brenner told Chemistry World. ’These reactors have appropriate security measures in place.’

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA