– US officials hold terror drill at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
– Mock terrorists were able to reach critical areas of the facility, however they were given significant insider knowledge
– Drill highlights continued concerns over the safety of US nuclear facilities
According to recent media reports, mock terrorists were able to successfully carry out an attack on the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, during a routine test of the site’s nuclear defenses.
While the drill was part of a larger inspection by United States (US) officials and no materials inside the site were at risk during the event, the incident highlights continued concerns over the safety of the country’s nuclear facilities and the importance of working to improve security measures at locations housing such dangerous materials.
Details of the Exercise
US officials have stated that the drill, conducted in late April 2008, consisted of two teams of special-operations commandos who guard other nuclear sites in the US. The “attack” team used simulated explosives against the “defense” team, which worked to repel the attack. According to media reports, the mock terrorists were able to reach areas in the facility where plutonium and weapons-grade uranium are stored. Reportedly, one of the site’s Gatling guns, which are capable of firing 4,000 rounds per minute, failed to work properly due to a hydraulic problem.
However, US authorities have indicated that the attack team was given a significant amount of insider knowledge, communications and equipment advantages, and began the exercise inside the laboratory property, making the simulated attack unrealistic. Nevertheless, officials have stated that the drill revealed important security gaps at the site and areas for improvement.
The simulated attack was part of a larger, routine seven-week review of the laboratory conducted by the Department of Energy’s Office of Health, Safety, and Security. The inspection found that four areas of security at the site were “effective,” while four others needed improvement.
Actions Taken in Response to Drill
Following the conclusion of the inspection and simulated attack, additional security forces were placed at the site and some material was moved to areas with a higher level of security. Further, the facility has increased training of both security officers and staff at the laboratory, and has plans to train forces more often in the areas that they actually guard on a daily basis. On May 20, 2008, the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration stated that vulnerabilities exposed during the drill have now been “patched.”
• Authorities have noted the importance of heightened security at the laboratory, which is located approximately 50 miles outside of San Francisco, as about seven million individuals live within a 50-mile radius of the site.
As a result of the drill, authorities have indicated that additional training of security forces will be implemented at other nuclear facilities throughout the country.
Recent Problems at US Nuclear Facilities
Several other events over the past month serve to highlight the continuing problems facing the country’s nuclear facilities.
• Media reports have stated that the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission visited the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Florida due to security violations. According to officials, the problems occurred from 2004 to 2006, and included incidents such as security forces sleeping on duty (other individuals allegedly covered for these guards). The chairman instructed the plant to boost staff levels, as many of the problems stemmed from a shortage of workers.
• A strike by employees was narrowly averted at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts after the plant’s owner and union members reached a contract agreement hours before the strike deadline. The union had warned the stoppage would result in delays in the disposal of radioactive materials, threatening the safety of the public. However, the plant owner maintained that they had found replacement workers.
As reported previously, various security problems at US nuclear facilities have continued over the past year, despite significant efforts by officials to tighten measures designed to protect such critical facilities (Previous Report, Previous Report).
We maintain that acquiring and using a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) weapon remains a key goal of al-Qaeda central, as the group has a known interest in developing such a device. We believe there is little doubt that the group has continued to pursue its efforts to develop the capabilities for a CBRN attack. As such, it is important for US officials to continue to heighten security measures at US nuclear facilities, in order to properly secure these sites and prevent dangerous actors from exploiting current vulnerabilities for actions against the homeland.