Los Alamos’ Security Professionals Protecting People & Plutonium Mean Business

Under the cover of darkness, around 2:30 in the morning on July 28 of this year, three nuclear weapons protestors, wearing backpacks and carrying bolt cutters, evaded armed guards, electronic security systems, and cameras; cut through layers of fences; and then vandalized the nation’s Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF); the high-security fortress-like structure that stores the nation’s stockpile of bomb-grade uranium. HEUMF is at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.

By their own account, it took the protestors close to two hours to navigate through Y-12’s defenses. Their journey took them inside a zone where the use of deadly force is authorized, meaning they could be shot on sight. They used flashlights. No one saw them.

Upon reaching HEUMF, the protestors splashed the outside walls with human blood, spray painted religious messages, tied red crime scene tape between concrete pillars, and using a small sledgehammer, succeeded in chipping away at the building’s concrete. Eventually confronted by a guard, the protestors—two men (ages 63 and 57) and a nun (age 82), were stopped and arrested.

What if they had been terrorists armed with explosives instead of protestors armed with slogans?

As Secretary of Energy Steven Chu noted in a September 18 speech to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “This unfortunate incident was an important wake up call for our entire complex and an important reminder that none of us can afford anything but the highest level of vigilance.”

According to one of the protestors, they initially considered three sites as possible targets: Y-12, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Kansas City Plant in Missouri. In fact, in 2010, during a protest at Los Alamos, the nun, Sister Megan Rice, was arrested for criminal trespass.

Could an incident similar to the one at Y-12 happen at Los Alamos National Laboratory?

What if they had been terrorists armed with explosives instead of protestors armed with slogans?

“No,” says Michael Lansing, associate director for security and safeguards at Los Alamos. “This year the Lab has had four reviews of its security-related policies and procedures and their implementations. Three of these were in the wake of Y-12 to determine if the Lab was similarly vulnerable. What did they find? They each found that we don’t have the problems with security that were found at Y-12.”

Lansing continues, “That said, we don’t take anything for granted. We work very hard every day to ensure all our security systems are fully operational. Furthermore, we readily adapt our security program to match any changes in those threats. We also make sure our professionals understand the fluid nature of the threats we face and train them accordingly. In short, we have the best security professionals in the business. And they mean business. No one should try to pull a stunt here like the one pulled at Y-12.”

“The security personnel at Los Alamos are not ‘rent-a-cops’,” says Jack Killeen, the division leader for physical security. “They’re professionals— many are ex-military, like Marines and Special Forces. Because electronic security systems can fail, we rely on our people first and foremost.”

He continues, “When it comes to protecting Lab personnel, the nuclear materials they steward, and their facilities, nobody can do it better.”

Because the Laboratory also has facilities and other properties that are accessible to the public, in these more open areas, Los Alamos has not been immune to acts of civil disobedience and protest in the past. But at the secured facilities, the Lab cannot and will not tolerate unauthorized incursions.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to protect Lab personnel, the nuclear materials they steward, and their facilities,” says Dominic Browning, a lieutenant colonel in the Lab’s protective forces. “Even if it means using deadly force. That’s not our preferred option, of course. But neither protestors nor terrorists will get close to the plutonium at this laboratory.”

Watch Los Alamos’ security professionals training at youtube.com/watch?v=t5dQy3PXWBIfeature=plcp. see the video

staff at Malmstrom AFB

(Opposite) Patrolling the Lab 24/7 are armored vehicles like this BearCat, armed here with a multibarrel machine gun capable of firing 3,000 rounds per minute. (Above) Entrances to TA-55, LANL’s plutonium science and engineering facility, are protected by guards, guns, gates, and working dogs. (Bottom left) Security personnel regularly train using both lethal and nonlethal tactics. (Bottom right) The Lab uses unmanned air vehicles—drones—like the 58-inch-long helicopter shown here, for surveillance. (Photos: LANL)

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