LANL shuts down amid terrorist acts on East Coast


September 12, 2001

Los Alamos National Laboratory had about 20 kilograms of plutonium stored in an unprotected area until late August, which critics say should make New Mexicans worry about a terrorist attack on the lab similar to those in New York and Washington on Tuesday.

Workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory were evacuated Tuesday in case the terrorist attacks spread west to the nation's nuclear-weapons complex.

However, LANL officials said "absolutely no threats whatsoever" were made against the lab. Dick Burick, chief of security at LANL, said the energy secretary sent all energy-department employees home about 11 a.m.

However, Burick said, if someone had targeted LANL - and the many kilograms of radioactive material throughout the laboratory - in the same manner as the Pentagon, "that would have been very difficult to stop."

"There's nothing we could have done to prevent that," Burick said. "Any facility in America is vulnerable to that kind of attack."

And some LANL watchdogs say the lab should do more to guard against terrorist attack because the facility is guarding such dangerous materials.

"Much of the lab is vulnerable to terrorist attack," said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group. Also, lab critics say, LANL seems too casual in protecting its most volatile materials.

In late August, LANL was criticized by the Department of Energy and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board for storing large quantities of plutonium waste outside a building known as PF-185 at the heart of the lab. The drums stored outside next to a building in a secure area - waiting for transport to the lab's nuclear dump - contained up to 20 kilograms of plutonium, according to the DOE. That amount is enough to build several bombs.

A note dated Aug. 24 from Charles Keilers, a representative of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, says the building provided no protection for the plutonium waste in terms of "high wind, missile or seismic" activity.

If a jet had flown into a stack of such waste and created a big enough explosion, Mello said, "you could have a plume (of radiation) going across New Mexico in a short time."

"If it were just a plane crash, it might not (reach beyond Los Alamos)," he said.

At the request of DOE and the nuclear-safety board, LANL moved those drums of plutonium waste in late August. DOE is investigating how long the drums of plutonium waste had been at the site.

But Burick said the lab's most volatile materials are well protected from fire and attack.

"These are very hardened facilities," he said. "It would take a large aircraft to do significant damage."

Lab officials generally believe there are other military targets - such as the Pentagon - that would be more attractive to terrorists. However, Burick said, it would depend on what the terrorists were hoping to prove.

"The lab could be (an attractive target)," he said. "But that wasn't the focus today. I don't think Los Alamos would be ranked with the symbolism of the Pentagon, not in today's world."

Mello agreed, but noted that terrorists might take note that Los Alamos is the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

"It would depend on the symbolism chosen by the terrorist," he said. "Most shows of force are done through conventional (non-nuclear) means. But if terrorists sought to highlight the United States' duplicity and hypocrisy in terms of (nuclear) weapons, Los Alamos is a likely target."

Burick said the lab will probably reopen today.