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Nuclear bomb factory poorly guarded, group warns
Michael Roston
Published: Monday May 14, 2007
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A labor dispute has reduced the guard force at a US nuclear weapons assembly plant by more than half, causing a government watchdog to warn that the security situation is "alarming."

The group noted that fewer than half of the needed guards were available at Pantex, the nation's only nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly factory, located outside of Amarillo, Texas.

"The official guard force at Pantex is comprised of 537 officers. These officers have trained for years to protect the multiple and wide-spread storage facilities that house the materials that are so attractive to terrorists," wrote Danielle Brian, who leads the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), in a May 10 letter to the Department of Energy's Secretary, Samuel Bodman. "Shockingly, since the strike, a force of only about 200 replacements have been guarding Pantex—far fewer than half the number of officers considered necessary to defend this sensitive site."

Brian added, "Pantex is a hard site to defend under the best of conditions. Because it is our only nuclear weapons assembly plant, it houses some of the most sensitive nuclear materials in the nuclear weapons complex....nuclear warheads, high explosives, and tons of plutonium in metal form, all of which are prime targets for terrorists."

The watchdog group's leader also noted that the current guard force does not have the same training as the guards that are currently on strike and, furthermore, many of them are unarmed. Moreover, because the group of guards is currently overworked, Brian noted that they could not be performance tested.

"Without verification through performance testing, any assurances of adequate security are questionable," she warned.

The Pantex guard force has sought retirement benefits. Brian encouraged the Energy Department to rectify disputes over retirement in the long-term. But with more immediacy, she called for a halt on all bomb assembly actions at Pantex by BWXT, the Energy Department's contractor.

"Until the strike is resolved, operations involving nuclear weapons parts or materials should be shut down, and those parts and materials should remain in their vaults. This would make the plant easier to defend during the strike," she warned.

Brian's full letter can be read at the POGO website.