Nuclear Security:

Actions Needed by DOE to Improve Security of Weapons-Grade Nuclear Material at Its Energy, Science and Environment Sites

GAO-05-934T: Published: Jul 26, 2005. Publicly Released: Jul 26, 2005.

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A successful terrorist attack on a Department of Energy (DOE) site containing nuclear weapons material could have devastating effects for the site and nearby communities. DOE's Office of the Under Secretary for Energy, Science and Environment (ESE), which is responsible for DOE operations in areas such as energy research, manages five sites that contain weapons-grade nuclear material. A heavily armed security force equipped with such items as automatic weapons protects ESE sites. GAO was asked to examine (1) the extent to which ESE protective forces are meeting DOE's existing readiness requirements and (2) the actions DOE and ESE will need to take to successfully defend against the larger, revised terrorist threat identified in the October 2004 design basis threat (DBT) by DOE's implementation deadline of October 2008.

Protective forces at the five ESE sites containing weapons-grade nuclear material generally meet existing key DOE readiness requirements. Specifically, GAO determined that ESE protective forces generally comply with DOE standards for firearms proficiency, physical fitness levels, and equipment standardization and that the five ESE sites had the required training programs, facilities, and equipment. However, GAO did find some weaknesses at ESE sites that could adversely affect the ability of protective forces to defend these sites. For example, despite the importance of training exercises in which protective forces undergo simulated attacks by a group of mock terrorists (force-on-force exercises), DOE neither sets standards for individual protective force officers to participate in these exercises, nor does it require sites to track individual participation. GAO also found that protective force officers at all five of the ESE sites reported problems with their radio communications systems. Specifically, according to 66 of the 105 protective force officers GAO interviewed, they did not always have dependable radio communications as required by the DOE Manual 473.2-2, Protective Force Program Manual. Security officials stated that related improvements were under way. To successfully defend against the larger terrorist threat contained in the 2004 DBT by October 2008, DOE and ESE officials recognize that they will need to take several prompt and coordinated actions. These include transforming its current protective force into an elite, possibly federalized, force, developing and deploying new security technologies to reduce the risk to protective forces in case of an attack, consolidating and eliminating nuclear weapons material between and among ESE sites, and creating a sound ESE management structure that has sufficient authority to ensure coordination across all ESE offices that have weapons-grade nuclear material. However, because these initiatives, particularly an elite force, are in early stages of development and will require significant commitment of resources and coordination across DOE and ESE, their completion by the October 2008 DBT implementation deadline is uncertain.

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