The Energy Department, responding to a security scandal at the Los Alamos weapons lab, ordered a halt to classified work at as many as two dozen facilities that use removable computer disks like those missing at the New Mexico lab. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said Friday that the “stand-down” at DOE operations that use the disks, containing classified material involving nuclear weapons research, was needed to get better control over the devices. The disks, known as “controlled removable electronic media” or CREM, have been at the heart of an uproar over lax security at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where work has been stopped as scientists search for two of the disks reported missing on July 7. Fifteen workers have been suspended, including 11 who had access to a safe where the disks were stored. Officials believed they had been accounted for in an April inventory, but that also is being questions because of possible irregularities in that audit.
The missing Los Alamos disks raised concern within the Energy Department about the handling of the devices at other facilities involved in nuclear weapons research, department officials said.
Abraham said he wanted to “minimize the risk of human error or malfeasance” that could compromise the classified nuclear related information held in the devices that are used at DOE facilities nationwide in nuclear-related work.
“While we have no evidence that the problems currently being investigated (at Los Alamos) are present elsewhere, we have a responsibility to take all necessary action to prevent such problems from occurring at all,” Abraham said in a statement.
The department declined to identify the sites that will be affected by the work suspensions, beginning Monday.
The directive was sent to all 59 DOE facilities nationwide, but the number actually affected is expected to be “less than two dozen … but more than 15,” said a senior DOE official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The stand-down involves classified work across the government’s nuclear weapons complex wherever the CREM storage devices are used, the official said.
It will continue until an inventory of the devices is completed and new control measures on their use is put in place, said DOE spokesman Joe Davis. Employees using the disks also must undergo security training.
“There will be disruptions to ongoing projects,” said Davis. “But we view this as a necessary step to make sure that we have a complete accounting.”
At many of the facilities nonclassified work will continue and “a lot of stuff will continue to go on,” said Davis.
Among the sites affected are the DOE’s other two major nuclear weapons research laboratories: Lawrence Livermore in California and Sandia in Albuquerque, New Mexico. where a classified disk was missing and then reported found last week.
Livermore spokesman David Schwoegler said 876 of Livermore’s more than 9,000 workers have access to the security sensitive CREMs targeted by the DOE directive.
“Those would be the only people that would be affected,” said Schwoegler. Coincidentally, he said, the lab already had a regularly scheduled inventory of all CREMS planned for next week.
Among the other facilities that will suspend classified work are the Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago; the nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York; the Pantex plant in Texas, where nuclear warheads are taken apart; and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.
The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, is not a weapons lab but had already began an inventory of computer disks related to classified work, said its spokesman, Geoff Harvey.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, called Abraham’s directive “an important step” to moving toward a more secure computer data system in nuclear weapons research.
“We always believed poor cyber security was a systemwide problem,” said Brian, whose Washington-based watchdog group has closely followed the Los Alamos security problems.