Nuclear Security: DOE and NRC Have Different Security Requirements for Protecting Weapons-Grade Material from Terrorist Attacks

GAO-07-1197R Published: Sep 11, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 25, 2007.
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In terrorists' hands, weapons-grade nuclear material--known as Category I special nuclear material when in specified forms and quantities--can be used to construct an improvised nuclear device capable of producing a nuclear explosion. Responsibility for the security of Category I special nuclear material is divided between the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Specifically, DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a separately organized agency within DOE, are responsible for overseeing physical security at government-owned and contractor-operated sites with Category I special nuclear material. NRC, which is responsible for licensing and overseeing commercially owned facilities with nuclear materials, such as nuclear power plants, is responsible for regulating physical security at those licensees that store and process Category I special nuclear material under contract, primarily for DOE. Because of the risks associated with Category I special nuclear material, both DOE and NRC recognize that effective security programs are essential. The key component in both DOE's and NRC's security programs is each agency's design basis threat (DBT)--classified documents that identify the potential size and capabilities of terrorist threats to special nuclear material. To counter the threat contained in their respective DBTs, both DOE sites and NRC licensees use physical security systems, such as alarms, fences, and other barriers; trained and armed security forces; and operational security procedures, such as a "two-person" rule that prevents unobserved access to special nuclear material. In addition, to ensure DBT requirements are being met and to detect potential security vulnerabilities, DOE and NRC employ a variety of other measures, including inspection programs; reviews; and force-on-force performance tests, in which the site's security forces undergo simulated attacks by a group of mock terrorists. Over the past several years, we have raised concerns about certain aspects of security at DOE sites and at NRC-regulated commercial nuclear power plants. In this context, you asked us to determine (1) whether DOE's and NRC's requirements for protecting Category I special nuclear material from terrorist threats differ from one another; (2) the reasons for any differences between these requirements; and (3) if, as a result, there are differences between how NRC-licensed facilities that store and process Category I special nuclear material and how DOE facilities that store and process Category I special nuclear material are defended against a terrorist attack.

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