mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Nuclear Insecurity

This is an abridged version of the article that appeared in the November
2003 edition of Vanity Fair.


1 Are America’s Weapons Sites Sitting Ducks for Terrorists?

Insiders like to call it the four most closely guarded acres on
earth. Certainly the contents of Technical Area-55 deserve that level
of protection. This cluster of metal warehouse-like buildings inside
the Los Alamos National Laboratory is the United States government’s
main facility for processing plutonium, a decisive ingredient in the
approximately 70,000 nuclear weapons built in the United States since
World War II. Now that the Cold War is over, many of these weapons and
their plutonium are being stored back where they were
America’s nuclear-weapons facilities some of the most tempting
terrorist targets in existence.

Rich Levernier spent the six years before September 2001 running
nuclear war games for the United States government. It was his job to
test the preparedness of America’s nuclear weapons facilities against
terrorist attacks. Once a year, his black hats—mock terrorist squads
made up of U.S. military commandos—would assault Los Alamos and nine
other major facilities, as well as the system for transporting nuclear
weapons around the United States by truck. Neither side in these war
games shot real ammunition—harmless laser weapons were
used—but in
other respects the games were deadly serious. Levernier’s black hats
were ordered to penetrate a given weapons facility, capture its
plutonium or highly enriched uranium and escape; the facility’s
security forces were expected to repel the mock attackers.

The results of these tests, which Levernier reveals publicly in this
article for the first time, are nothing short of alarming. Some of
the facilities would fail year after year, he says. In more than 50
percent of our tests of the Los Alamos facility, we got in, captured
the plutonium, got out again, and didn’t fire a shot because we didn’t
encounter any guards.

This, despite the fact the security forces were told months in advance
exactly what day the terrorists were coming.

2 An Involuntary Whistleblower

It’s all smoke and mirrors, Levernier says about security at
nuclear-weapons facilities. On paper, it looks good, but in reality,
it’s not. There are lots of shiny gates and guards and razor wire out
front. But go around back and there are gaping holes in the fence, the
sensors don’t work, and it just ain’t as impressive as it appears.

Levernier has never before spoken to the press or Congress about his
findings. He is going public now only because the Bush administration
has left him no choice. Working through normal bureaucratic channels,
Levernier tried for years to get his superiors at the Department of
Energy (DOE), which manages America’s nuclear weapons complex, to
address these shortcomings. But the problems did not get fixed; most
of his superiors, says Levernier, refused to acknowledge that the
problems even existed. Finally, when he refused to stop pushing for
reform, Levernier was stripped of his security clearance after a
relatively minor infraction and was removed from his job, effectively
ending his career two years before he was due to retire with a

So Levernier has become—involuntarily, he stresses—a whistleblower.
The role does not come easily. A twenty-two year veteran of DOE,
Levernier has devoted virtually his entire adult life to military
security. By his own admission, he was never the type to question
authority. But to salvage his career, he eventually filed suit against
DOE, accusing the agency of illegally gagging him and removing him
from his duties. Levernier also is speaking out publicly in hopes of
saving his country from a catastrophic, and preventable, terrorist

The mock attacks Levernier conducted targeted nuclear-weapons
facilities, not nuclear power stations; the consequences of a breach
at a weapons facility could be orders of magnitude worse. According to
DOE documents, America’s nuclear weapons facilities house more than 60
metric tons of plutonium and hundreds of metric tons of highly
enriched uranium. Since a mere 11 pounds of plutonium or 45 pounds of
highly enriched uranium is enough to make a crude nuclear device, the
U.S. nuclear weapons complex as a whole contains the equivalent of
tens of thousands of Hiroshima-strength weapons, all pre-positioned in
the nation’s heartland. The Los Alamos facility alone holds 2.7 metric
tons of plutonium and 3.2 metric tons of highly enriched uranium,
according to the DOE reports.

The most dangerous problem exposed by Levernier and his team is that
terrorists could infiltrate Los Alamos and get away with substantial
amounts of plutonium, says Arjun Makhijani, president of the
Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park,
Maryland. The stolen plutonium might then show up as a nuclear-bomb
explosion that would devastate an American city, possibly killing
hundreds of thousands of people. A second danger is that a terrorist
attack could cause deadly plutonium fires, which could result in
hundreds of cancer deaths and leave hundreds of square miles

3 Bush Administration Denies Any Danger

Levernier relates his information poker-faced, in an urgent monotone.
Warm and fuzzy he is not. His lawyer, Tom Devine, says it took six
months of working together before he got Levernier to crack a smile.

But if Levernier’s story is true, history is repeating itself in a
most disquieting way. U.S. congressional inquiries have shown that if
the Bush administration had heeded the warnings of other government
truth-tellers, it might have prevented the September 11 attacks. Now
the administration appears to be making the same mistake again, but
with much higher stakes and much less excuse.

Over the past two years, the Bush administration has talked tough
about defending the United States against terrorism. The president has
pointed to the September 11th tragedy to justify much of his political
agenda, from invading Afghanistan and Iraq to limiting Americans’
civil liberties. But if Levernier and other nuclear experts and
official documents consulted for this story are correct, the Bush
administration is in fact failing disastrously at the urgent job of
keeping the American homeland safe from terrorist attacks. In
particular, the administration is doing worse than nothing to protect
the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities, which must rank near the top
of any terrorist’s wish list of targets. Not only is it leaving gaping
holes in the security system unrepaired, it is silencing the very
whistleblowers who are trying to fix the problem before it is too

The Bush administration denies there is a danger.

Any implication that there is a 50 percent failure rate on security
tests at our nuclear-weapons not true, says Anson Franklin,
a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a
semi-autonomous agency set up within DOE to oversee the nuclear
weapons complex. Our facilities are not vulnerable.

4 A Magical Sprinkler System

Chris Steele is another Los Alamos insider who is speaking out here
for the first time. Like Rich Levernier, he is a reluctant
whistleblower. During his seven years at Los Alamos, Steele has
preferred to work through official channels. But that changed in
November 2002, when his DOE superiors took him off the job after he
overruled laughably inept preparations against terrorist attack.

As DOE’s senior safety official at Los Alamos, Steele was responsible
for making sure that the Lab’s operations did not put workers, the
public or the environment at undue risk. He had real authority; his
signature was required before any potentially dangerous procedure
could go forward at Los Alamos. According to colleagues both friendly
and not, he took his responsibilities very seriously.

In October 2002, Steele was presented with a safety analysis report
for the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility at Los Alamos. Lab
officials had analyzed various accident scenarios, including that of
an airplane crashing into the waste facility. The report did not
distinguish between an accidental crash by a commercial airliner or a
deliberate terrorist attack, which may be why it estimated the odds of
such an incident at one million to one—rather optimistic, given that
al-Qaeda had crashed three planes into targets on a single day barely
one year earlier. In any case, the report projected that an airplane
that crashed into the Radioactive Liquid Waste Treatment Facility
would cause hundreds of thousands of gallons of nuclear waste to catch

But not to worry, said the authors of the report: the fire would be
extinguished by the waste facility’s roof sprinkler system.

That must be a magical sprinkler system, Steele says with a twinkle
in his eye, since it’s apparently able to rise up from the rubble,
turn itself on and put out the flames. We should buy one of those for
every nuclear plant in the country.

Reading this kind of analysis, Steele recalled at the time, you
don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but you have an urge to do both.
But his superiors apparently had a different urge. On November 22,
2002, a month after he rejected the report, Steele was summoned to his
boss’s office and stripped of his security clearance, effectively
removing him from his post.

Anson Franklin, the spokesman for the National Nuclear Security
Administration in Washington, confirmed in an interview at the time
that Steele had become the subject of a DOE security investigation.
And although Franklin described the investigation as ongoing, it
sounded as if a verdict had already been reached. Mr. Steele
committed serious security violations, he said.

5 A Secret Nuclear Waste Dump

Chris Steele is a confessed nerd and workaholic with thinning blond
hair and a bit of a weight problem. When asked what he does for
fun—sports? movies? the outdoors?—the 45 year old is stumped. I’m
kind of boring, I guess, he says with a shrug. He spent his last
vacation re-calculating radiation releases from a hypothetical
accident at Los Alamos.

Steele joined the staff at Los Alamos in 1996, where his experiences
quickly convinced him that violation of nuclear safety rules was
systemic. Plans for controlling accidents, said Steele, were window-
dressing put forth by the Lab’s operators, the University of
California, and rubber-stamped by its overseers at DOE so that nuclear
research and production could continue without disruption. Fearing a
disaster was waiting to happen, Steele pushed for an overhaul of
safety procedures.

This overhaul gave rise to the most extraordinary of Steele’s
crusades: his discovery and closure of a secret nuclear waste dump. On
July 18, 2001, a seemingly routine memo reached his office from
managers at the TA-55 facility—the four most closely guarded acres on
earth. The memo’s turgid bureaucratic language obscured a shocking
disclosure: without the knowledge, much less the approval, of the
Secretary of Energy, nuclear waste was being stored inside TA-55, in a
plain steel building known as PF-185.

Steele immediately shut down the unauthorized nuclear dump, and the
waste was soon removed from PF-185 and stored elsewhere inside the Los
Alamos complex. The very existence of a secret nuclear waste dump was
illegal, Steele says: The amount of waste inside PF-185 qualified it
as a Class 2 nuclear facility, and only the Secretary of Energy can
authorize a Class 2 facility. Worse, he argues, was the threat that
the unauthorized dump had been posing to workers, the public and the

The lack of a valid safety analysis meant that PF-185 had been
operated for five years without any nuclear safety controls—none,
says Steele. Waste was stored in an ordinary steel building that was
not designed to withstand strong winds, earthquakes or fire. When
wildfires roared through the Los Alamos facility in May 2000, Steele
recalls, the flames were six feet tall across [the road] from PF-185.
I know, because I drove by on my way to the Emergency Operations
Center. We’re lucky the fire didn’t jump the road.

6 Indefensible

James Ford is retired now, living in what he calls a lovely gated
community in southwestern Virginia. But during the late 1990s, Ford
was Rich Levernier’s direct supervisor at DOE. Although he praises
Levernier as a man of enormous talent, Ford also complains that he
was not a team player. Nor does Ford dispute that the security
forces at Los Alamos and other weapons facilities posted high failure
rates against Levernier’s mock terrorists. But he blames these dismal
results more on Levernier’s strict approach to grading than on the
security forces’ actual performance.

Ford complains that one scenario Levernier would harp on concerned
the Technical Area-18 facility at Los Alamos, which, Ford concedes,
is essentially indefensible. There are lots of other targets at Los
Alamos, but Levernier would want to attack TA-18 every time.

I saw what Ford meant when I drove past the TA-18 facility during a
visit to Los Alamos. TA-18 sits at the bottom of a canyon on the edge
of the Los Alamos complex. The canyon is surrounded on three sides by
steep, wooded ridges. Attackers would therefore have the advantage of
cover as well as the high ground. My guys were licking their chops
when they saw that terrain, says Ronald Timms, who commanded mock
terrorist squads under Levernier’s supervision.

Timms is the president of RETA Security, Inc., a consulting firm that
has participated in many DOE war games and designed the National Park
Service’s security plan for Mount Rushmore. He laughs when asked about
James Ford’s complaint that Levernier harped on TA-18. To say it’s
unfair to go after the weak link is so perverse, it’s ridiculous,
Timms says. Of course the bad guys are going to go after the weakest
link. That’s why [DOE] isn’t supposed to have weak links at those

During one attack against TA-18, the black hats added insult to
injury: not only did they capture weapons-grade nuclear material, they
hauled it away in a Home Depot garden cart. Bill Richardson, the
Secretary of Energy at the time, concluded that TA-18 was indeed
indefensible and ordered that all of its weapons-grade materials be
removed and delivered to the Nevada Test Site by 2003. But none of
TA-18’s weapons-grade material has yet been moved, and no action is
expected until at least 2006.

The failure rates of DOE’s security forces are all the more remarkable
considering that war games are fought under rules of engagement that
overwhelmingly favor the defense. Although surprise is a terrorist’s
most important tactical advantage, the date of the war games is
scheduled months in advance, so defenders know exactly when the black
hats are coming, within a window of eight hours. Attackers aren’t
allowed to use certain types of equipment readily available to
terrorists, including grenades, body armor and helicopters. You can
walk into a Radio Shack and for $400 buy a device that will jam all
radio transmissions in a six block area, Levernier says. For
$40,000, you can block all transmissions within a mile. But DOE
wouldn’t let me use that stuff, because it doesn’t have a defense
against it. In the name of safety, the black hats also have to obey
25 mile-an-hour speed limits.

The biggest artificiality in DoE’s war games, says Levernier, is that
they don’t test for suicide attacks. To win, attackers must penetrate
the facility, capture the plutonium, and then escape. In the real
world, of course, terrorists might choose to bring their own
explosives and ignite the plutonium, and themselves, on site. But not
until May 2003 did DOE order that nuclear weapons facilities prepare
to defend against suicide attacks, and this policy change will not
take effect until 2009.

Not all of America’s nuclear weapons facilities are poorly defended.
Three have scored relatively well against mock terrorists: the Argonne
National Laboratory-West, in Idaho, the Pantex plant, in Texas, and
the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

So why doesn’t the Bush administration insist on similar vigilance
throughout the entire nuclear complex? [They] just don’t think [a
catastrophic attack] will happen, Levernier says. And nobody wants
to say we can’t protect these nuclear weapons, because the political
fallout would be so great that there would be no chance to keep the
system running.

The White House press office declined to reply to repeated requests
for comment.

7 Silenced in a Most Cunning Way

Chris Steele and Rich Levernier have never met, but they have much in
common: each lost his security clearance, and therefore his job, for
coming forward with his unwelcome truths—and sticking to them in the
face of hostility from higher-ups.

As the year 2000 unfolded, Levernier was growing more and more
frustrated by DOE’s failure to address what he regarded as a
catastrophe in the making. He decided he had to go outside normal
channels to effect change. Although 99.99 percent of what I dealt
with was classified information, says Levernier, one day there came
across his desk an unclassified document that hinted at some of the
problems worrying him. He faxed the document to the Washington Post,
which ran a story inside the paper a day later.

But Levernier, who had never dealt with the press before, put a
colleague’s name on the fax rather than his own, and DOE used this
transgression to silence him in a most cunning way. He was not fired
outright, for that would have given him due process rights and perhaps
provoked him to speak out publicly. Instead, his security clearance
was withdrawn, even though American law explicitly allows government
employees to share such unclassified information with the public and
the press. The effect of the disciplinary action was to remove
Levernier from his post, since a security clearance is a pre-requisite
for his job.

It was stupid and wrong, and I regret doing it, Levernier says of
using a false name. But he argues that his transgression was trivial
compared to the scale of his punishment, and his former boss, James
Ford, essentially agrees with him. Levernier had rubbed so many
people the wrong way over the years, Ford says, that when he gave
them the opening by leaking that information, they threw the book at
him and didn’t give him the second chance someone else might have

In Steele’s case, too, it appears that what triggered DOE’s alleged
retaliation was a fear that his candor might encourage informed
outside scrutiny of DOE’s actions—not so much by the press as by

When Steele shut down the secret waste dump and then rejected the
magic sprinkler plan, he came into conflict with Joseph Salgado, the
Los Alamos Lab’s deputy director. After the sprinkler rejection,
Salgado accused Steel of airing the Lab’s dirty laundry. He angrily
complained about having to spend four hours during testimony before
Congress explaining single sentences in Steele’s memos. One month
later, Steele was taken off the job, on the grounds that he was
considered a security risk.

Chris was set up on the security issue, because he’d gotten some of
those guys reassigned, says a source with direct knowledge of the
situation. Management wanted to take him down, and they had made it
clear publicly..I was briefed [on it] by DoE headquarters. Dave Gurule
was the guy who really wanted him out, him and [William] Hensley [the
head of security for DOE nationwide]. So they set him up by sending
him a classified memo about a black project, but Chris wasn’t aware it
was classified, and they used that to take him out.

8 The Hypocrisy Is Pretty Outrageous

In June 2003, two grams of plutonium were reported lost at Los Alamos.
Shortly thereafter, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced that
a new security review of the nation’s nuclear weapons facilities
would be conducted post-haste. Whether this review will lead to real
reform seems doubtful; in the past, similar reviews have gone nowhere.
In the wake of a previous scandal, the Clinton administration
commissioned a report from the august President’s Foreign Intelligence
Advisory Board. Released in 1999, Science At Its Best, Security At
Its Worst painted an abysmal picture of DOE, calling it a large
organization saturated with cynicism, an arrogant disregard for
authority, and a staggering pattern of denial. Noting that DOE had
been the subject of a nearly unbroken history of dire warnings and
attempted but aborted reforms, the Board warned that DOE may be
incapable of reforming itself..

A case in point, again from June 2003: DOE was caught instructing its
employees not to spill your guts when questioned in security
investigations. A senior aide to Secretary Abraham, Glenn Podonsky,
seems to have taken this advice to heart while testifying to a
congressional subcommittee. Asked how often security forces at the
nation’s nuclear weapons facilties are defeated in war game exercises,
Podonsky replied, according to a source who was present, I don’t
know. The source says that Podonsky was then reminded that he was
under oath, at which point he allegedly amended his answer to, More
often than we would like.

The bureaucracy is more interested in the appearance of proper
oversight than the reality, explains Tom Devine, the laywer who
represents both Levernier and Steele. Partly that’s about saving
face. To admit that a whistleblower’s charges are right would reflect
poorly on the bureaucracy’s competence. And fixing the problems that
whistleblowers identify would often mean diverting funds that
bureaucrats would rather use for other purposes, like empire building.
But the main reason bureaucrats have no tolerance for dissent is that
taking whistleblowers’ charges seriously would require them to stand
up to the regulated industry, and that’s not in most bureaucrats’
nature, whether the industry is the nuclear weapons complex or the

Noting that Levernier’s and Steele’s troubles began under the Clinton
administration and then continued under Bush, Devine argues that
bureaucratic antipathy to whistleblowers is deeply rooted in
Washington. Yet the Bush administration is particularly unsympathetic
to whistleblowers, Devine adds, because it is ideologically disposed
against government regulation in general.

I don’t think President Bush or other senior officials in this
administration want another September 11th, says Devine, but their
anti-government ideology gets in the way of fixing the problems
Levenier and Dzakovic are talking about. The security failures in the
nuclear weapons complex and the civil aviation system are failures of
government regulation. The Bush people don’t believe in government
regulation in the first place, so they’re not inclined to expend the
time and energy needed to take these problems seriously. And then they
go around boasting that they’re winning the war on terrorism. The
hypocrisy is pretty outrageous.

Devine calls whistleblowers like Levernier and Dzakovic modern-day
Paul Reveres. Just as the Massachusetts farmer rode through the night
in 1775 to warn fellow revolutionaries about the impending British
attack, he says, today’s whistleblowers risk their lives and sacred
honor to urge action while tragedy can still be averted. Especially
after September 11, argues Elaine Kaplan, whose term as lead counsel
of the OSC expired in June 2003, if we are truly concerned about
national security, we have to protect whistleblower rights. It seems
crazy to have people in a position to know about potential problems
but afraid to speak out.

But Rich Levernier will have none of this noble talk. If I had to do
this over again, I wouldn’t, he says. I would have been more
aggressive about keeping a record of the shortcomings I witnessed, and
I’d have laid it on my bosses’ doorsteps, and then if they didn’t do
anything, that failure would be on their backs. But that’s all.
Because now I recognize that the power your superiors have over you is
broad and deep, and they don’t hesitate to use it. When they took my
security clearance, it was like a scarlet letter was painted on my
forehead. It’s ruined my life.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush is preparing to run for re-election in
November 2004 as the September 11th candidate. That label has helped
Bush politically in the two years since the attacks, but the
revelations of whistleblowers like Rich Levernier, Chris Steele and
Bogdan Dzakovic suggest that the label could cut both ways. Americans
don’t seem to blame Bush for the September 11th attacks taking place
on his watch, perhaps because few of them know how many warnings Bush
administration officials ignored beforehand from these and other
federal whistleblowers. But if Bush ignores whistleblowers again, and
their warnings are tragically validated in a second September 11th,
Americans may not be so forgiving.

9 About the author

Mark Hertsgaard is an independent journalist whose five books, including
The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, have
been translated into fifteen languages.

This article may not be reproduced elsewhere without the author’s agreement.



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.