WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some facilities that handle the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile misplaced classified bomb components under their care, according to an Energy Department audit.
The department’s Inspector General also found there was confusion at the facilities over who was responsible for keeping track of weapons parts and recommended changes in how to better safeguard the parts.
John Broehm, a spokesman for the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration that oversees the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, said his agency disagreed with the recommendations.
He said the parts, which he declined to identify, were later found.
A summary of the IG’s audit — a little-noticed two-page document released in late July — found that two of the three sites reviewed did not track “many” classified weapons parts in their custody.
The facilities “could not readily account for or locate some of the items included in our inventory sample,” the IG summary said.
The Inspector General’s office would not elaborate beyond the summary document or say when the audit was done.
Since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the United States has worried that terrorists may try to buy or steal weapons in other countries to use against it, but the IG’s findings raise the possibility of domestic weapons parts getting into the wrong hands.
The IG said it suggested changes to improve tracking and safeguarding the classified weapons parts, but “management did not agree with the report’s conclusions and recommendations.”
The NNSA said extra accountability controls were not needed on parts for “non-war reserve” weapons, which are used only for routine testing, research and development.
“We’re very comfortable that our accountability standards are more than sufficient for keeping track of everything,” Broehm said this week.
The IG wanted the same tough standards used for “war reserve” bombs that are ready for use to be applied to all weapons parts.
The NNSA operates at 11 facilities, including three national research laboratories: Los Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico and Livermore in California. The agency also oversees the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas, which is the only U.S. nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility.
The IG said details on the problems at the weapons sites would not be made public.
“We’re not going to be able to provide any additional information due to national security,” IG spokeswoman Marilyn Richardson said.
However, the IG’s summary of its audit broadly addresses the shortcomings discovered.
The summary said security officials at the two sites in question said they were not responsible for keeping track of the weapons parts, even though they acknowledged they had “certain physical safeguarding responsibilities.”
President George W. Bush in 2001 directed that the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile be reduced from about 6,000 operational warheads at the time to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012 — a goal the administration reaffirmed last month.