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US panel warns on nuclear power sites

Task force urges consolidation

WASHINGTON -- The country's nuclear weapons plants and sensitive material such as plutonium should be consolidated at a single site to increase security and reduce targets for terrorists, a federal advisory task force said.

A report made public yesterday also urged the Energy Department to speed development of sturdier, more reliable nuclear warheads that can be maintained more easily and last longer.

The report by a special task force of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board has yet to be approved by the full board. But it is expected to weigh heavily in the future configuration of the government's nuclear weapons complex, including activities at three weapons-design laboratories in New Mexico and California.

While such labs have been modernized, production facilities are ''World War II era . . . lacking in modern-day production technology and striving to optimize performance with antiquated equipment and facilities," the report said.

It recommended consolidating the most critical parts of the weapons complex, now spread across eight facilities, into a single site with ''cutting-edge nuclear component production, manufacturing, and assembly technologies."

The report did not recommended a location, but said selection should begin immediately.

The report also criticized the ''broad distribution" of sensitive nuclear material such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium, which now is located at six of the eight major facilities.

This distribution, once considered a security advantage, now ''increases the number of potential terrorist targets within this country, exposing the complex and the surrounding civilian population to risk," the report said.

It noted that when the weapons complex was designed, most of the sites were remote and relatively easy to secure. Today, residential or commercial communities border most of them.

''The primary method for dealing with current and future terrorist threats to the complex is through the application of guards, guns, and gates," the report said. It noted that such activities now account for nearly 15 percent of the weapon complex budget.

Citizen groups at several of the weapons-design and production facilities have argued that plutonium stockpiles should be removed from places such as the Livermore National Laboratory, which is in the heart of a residential area.

Plutonium and highly enriched uranium are needed for weapons design and other activities at Livermore. The lab has resisted removing all of such material, fearing its weapons work would have to be abandoned.

An Energy Department spokesman, Mike Waldron, noting that it was a draft report, said ''it would be premature to comment on specifics" until the public has had an opportunity to comment on the findings and the advisory panel has given its final approval.

In the mid-1990s, a panel of outside scientists recommended consolidating the three nuclear weapons labs, drawing opposition from the laboratories and members of Congress. The idea was rejected by Hazel O'Leary, the energy secretary at the time.

This recommendation also is expected to meet opposition.

Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, whose state is home to two of the three weapons labs, said: ''We should not rush into any quick fixes."

Domenici said the spending bill for the Energy Department prohibits, for now, the use of any money to put in place the advisory panel's recommendations.

The weapons facilities the task force looked at for consolidation were the three national labs -- Lawrence Livermore in California, and Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico -- as well as the Savannah River complex in South Carolina, the Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn., the Pantex facility in Texas, the Nuclear Test Site in Nevada, and a nonnuclear facility in Kansas City, Mo.

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