Page 17


Pantex Has Highest Security Protecting Nuclear Bombs By Ron Wolf Denver From a distance, the high chain-link fence surrounding the Rocky Flats Plant looked like the perimeter of any other large factory operated by a securityconscious company. Ten feet inside the main entrance several uniformed guards sat in a small cinderblock building at the side of the road. For the most part, their duties on this March morning consisted of processing the few visitors who had official business at the governmentowned nuclear weapons plant. About mid-morning, they opened the remotely-operated industrial gate to admit a technician who had been hired by a subcontractor to inspect a construction project. As the technician’s truck passed the guard post and turned toward the project, yellow lights on the roof of the building and the gate began to flash. A loud warbling horn pierced the silence, scaring even the guards. Immediately, the heavy gate was slammed shut, blocking the exit road. The alarm was instantly relayed to a central command post hidden away in the most secure part of the complex. From there, armed reinforcements were dispatched to track down the suspicious truck and its driver, who had inadvertently triggered a highly sensitive radiation monitor mounted alongside the roadway. The sophisticated device, which is capable of detecting minuscule quantities of nuclear material, had been installed a month earlier to guard against possible thefts from the plant. This was the first time it had signaled an actual alarm. Moments later the guards examined the truck with even more sensitive handheld radiation detectors. They immediately found the cause of the problem, a small, sealed radioactive “source.” The metallic cylinder, about the size of a pencil stub, was a standard piece of inspection equipment used to measure soil compaction. No nuclear material was being stolen or diverted, the innocent technician had merely stumbled into one Ron Wolf, who also wrote “Moving Bombs, Plutonium” \(TO fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which supported his research for this article. 22 JULY 24, 1981 of the newest gadgets used in safeguarding the facilities that manufacture the country’s nuclear weapons. Jiggle Detection : When nuclear weapons were in their infancy, the responsibility for protecting the raw materials and assembled bombs fell largely to the military police, whose techniques were derived primarily from law enforcement. As the nuclear industry grew, the approaches to safeguarding “special nuclear material” \(jargon for bombs and the weapons-gade plutonium or uranium from which bombs could be Space-age developments in computers and electronic instruments radically altered the nature of the security business. Now the field is a high-technology horserace that relies more on the techniques of satellite spying than those of police science. The world of safeguards these days is a mystifying universe of scientific wizardry described by -an . opaque vocabulary that is nearly as impenetrable as the subterranean vaults containing the nuclear weapons. Gadgets with strange names like seismic sensors, jiggle detectors, portal monitors, and passive distress alarms seem to have materialized out of the latest James Bond film. For example, delicate seismic sensors buried outside the perimeter of a weapons plant can detect the approaching footsteps of potential intruders. The devices are an extreme refinement of the technology used to warn of enemy troop movements in the jungles of Vietnam. In the most advanced systems, instant computer analysis of the electronic signals from the sensors can distinguish humans from vehicles and even estimate the number of people prowling around. Jiggle detectors, attached to a fence, can measure the vibration caused by contact. In the best systems, the computers can distinguish vibrations caused by animals and can compensate for weather conditions such as strong gusts of wind. Portal monitors, similar to airport metal detectors, are used at the exits from areas where plutonium and uranium are handled. Unlike the erratic airport security devices, these finely-tuned monitors will be triggered by quantities of nuclear material as small as onethousandth of the amount required to fabricate a bomb. In other words, a diverter would have to escape detection by the monitor a thousand times before accumulating enough plutonium for a weapon. Passive distress alarms worn by guards can keep track of vital signs for any sudden change. Even if a guard is seized by attackers or killed before he has a chance to sound an alarm, abrupt changes in his blood pressure and pulse rate will signal the emergency to a central command post. With the exception of portal monitors, not all these devices are fully deployed at the seven factories and three laboratories that comprise the nuclear weapons complex. The roadway monitor at Rocky Flats was the first to be installed. However, all of the gadgets have been demonstrated in the labs and are in use somewhere in some form. The U.S. government has adopted a policy of “graded safeguards,” the idea that nuclear materials with the greatest destructive potential be accorded the highest degree of protection. Plants with nearly complete nuclear weapons or large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium and uraniumtherefore get a top priority for the installation of the newest security devices. The safeguards system around the country is constantly in a state of transformation and security officials are understandably reluctant to boast of their most sensitive equipment or admit weaknesses due to older, less refined gear. Within the next few years, much more of the advanced hardware will be deployed at the weapons plants. Pantex Guarded Already, the U.S. Department of Energy has spent $5 million on a “perimeter intrusion detectfon and assessment system” incorporating many of these devices at its Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. The facility, a munitions factory during World War II, has been used since 1951 for the final assembly of nuclear weapons. Because it is the only unit in the production complex handling finished weapons, DOE provides Pantex with the highest level of protection.