Mock attack at Nevada Test Site exposes deficiencies

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LAS VEGAS - Security has been beefed up at the Nevada Test Site after guards failed to stop a mock terrorist attack on a bunker built to safeguard weapons-grade nuclear material.

The Aug. 12 exercise exposed outdated training and tactics for defending the Device Assembly Facility, and found shortcomings in transfer-of-ownership paperwork for nuclear material, a National Nuclear Security Administration official said Thursday.

"We have changed procedures, added guards and augmented training," said Kevin Rohrer, an NNSA spokesman in North Las Vegas. "We've taken corrective actions."

The exercise involved agents from the Energy Department's Office of Independent Oversight and Performance Assurance.

Rohrer declined to describe the exercise, the number of guards on duty or whether the attackers got inside the facility designed as the most secure part of the 1,375-square-mile federal reservation.

"That gets into security vulnerabilities that we really don't want the bad guys to know," he said.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was notified shortly after the failed test. Ensign aide Jack Finn provided no details about steps taken to improve security afterward, but said Thursday that Ensign was satisfied after sending two national security aides to meet with test site officials.

The $100 million Device Assembly Facility was built to consolidate handling of weapons-grade plutonium, highly enriched uranium and high explosives during assembly and disassembly of nuclear weapons and experiments.

The compound includes administration, receiving, staging, assembly and shipping bays in a buried compound guarded by gun turrets.

Gravel suspended in a superstructure is designed to drop and entomb the facility if nuclear material detonates.

Rohrer said no nuclear material was at the facility during the exercise.

Training was updated and more guards were added before the facility began receiving shipments of nuclear material in September from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the NNSA spokesman said.

"Security was certified as adequate," Rohrer said, adding that deliveries were for nuclear safety training and experiments - not full-scale testing.

"We're not doing nuclear testing and have no plans for nuclear testing," Rohrer said.

Test site guards had been notified a security exercise was planned, but were not told when or where it would take place.

The test site, nearly the size of Rhode Island, was the location of above- and below-ground nuclear detonations from 1951 to 1992.

In recent years, parts of the site some 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas have been used for underground "subcritical" experiments designed to test the nuclear stockpile without reaching critical mass for full-scale nuclear reactions.

Other sections of the vast test site are used for hazardous materials spill training and Department of Homeland Security counterterrorism exercises.


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