A set of keys to doors at a key Los Alamos National Laboratory research center containing nuclear materials was missing for 16 hours last week before they were discovered.
An investigation into the missing keys for Technical Area 18 - a canyon-bottom testing site that has drawn criticism over security concerns in the past - showed that two shift changes of security guards went by without anyone accounting for the "escort" set of keys, said Kevin Roark, a spokesman for the laboratory.
The investigation also determined that no security breaches occurred before the keys were discovered missing, Roark said.
"No one was allowed unauthorized access to any areas at TA-18 during this event... We've determined without a doubt there was no unauthorized activity," Roark said.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham made a commitment during a speech in May to move nuclear materials out of TA-18 because, according to federal officials, the area is difficult to defend and vulnerable to terrorist attack.
Moving the weapons-grade nuclear material to the Nevada Test Site is scheduled to begin in September.
The Los Angeles Times reported in May that TA-18 by some estimates contains a ton of plutonium or highly enriched uranium that could be used by terrorists to construct a crude weapon. The site includes several fortified blockhouses, a vault where plutonium is kept and several administrative buildings.
Protection Technology Los Alamos, a subcontractor, manages the guard force for the area.
"TA-18 is the most vulnerable nuclear weapons facility in the country," said Beth Daley of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group. "If we're concerned about any one site, it's that one."
Daley said the loss of the keys "is further evidence that security at Los Alamos is weak" and that the DOE needs to move forward with plans to improve security standards in the nation's weapons complex.
The keys that went missing are used by the guard force when escorting people in and out. Roark would not say which doors in the facility could have been opened by the missing keys‹ but that some of the keys opened doors to break-rooms and restrooms.
At 6:45 a.m. on June 18, a security guard called his shift commander to report that a key ring was missing. An immediate sweep of TA-18 was ordered, according to a Protection Technology incident report.
Thirty minutes later, a guard officer assigned to TA-18 during times the keys were used for escorts said he was not aware the keys were missing, the report says.
Ten minutes after that, another guard‹ who was known to have had the keys last, on June 16‹ reported that he had properly returned the keys following an escort; another guard said he had inventoried the key set properly on that date, according to the incident report.
By 9 a.m., security personnel had confirmed that they keys "were indeed missing," the report says.
The lab's management expects PTLA to investigate the failure to follow protocol to account for every key set at each shift change. Roark said.
"We would expect them to revisit these procedures and to implement changes if appropriate... and to implement any personnel action should that be appropriate," Roark said.
Even though the keys were missing for 16 hours, "we don't believe there was an increase in vulnerability," he said.
But security activity intensified following the discovery, he said.
"You can't legislate perfection, but you can be ready to take action when you have a problem," Roark said.
The locks on TA-18's doors were reconfigured "almost immediately" after the keys were discovered missing, Roark said.
The keys were found on Tuesday, during a third, intensive search of the area. The keys were found in a vehicle for the lab's guard force parked at TA-18, he said. While the vehicle had been searched previously, the keys were lodged under some equipment that hadn't been moved during earlier searches. There is no evidence the keys were used by anyone while they were lost, Roark said.
"The lab management's position is that we intend to hold Protection Technology fully accountable for this event," Roark said.
Lab Director Pete Nanos has called for PTLA to be held responsible, but not to the extent of losing its contract, Roark said. PTLA may be required to pay the cost of reconfiguring the locks.
"It's too early to say, but there will be repercussions," Roark said.
Requests for comment from PTLA were referred to Roark.
The TA-18 facilities are used for criticality experiments that investigate nuclear chain reactions and to train personnel for a variety of federal agencies.
In May, Abraham called for eliminating keys altogether as part of the security system at the nation's weapons labs.
"We all know that we've experienced a number of problems with lost keys and key cards," Abraham said. "This is not only unacceptable; it is also unnecessary." He called for moving toward a system of "keyless access control technology."
"It's time for DOE to get these plans going," POGO's Daley said Thursday.
Copyright 2004 Albuquerque Journal