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Iowa Republican Demands Tighter Nuclear Lab Security

Sen. Charles Grassley (search) is demanding the Energy Department strengthen its security at the nation's nuclear weapons labs, citing an incident in which a van, stolen from a classified area of a New Mexico lab, slammed through a fence.

"The labs are in harm's way," the Iowa Republican wrote to Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (search). "There is plenty of loud thunder. Lightning will surely follow. The labs are in danger of getting zapped."

The letter, sent Friday, was prompted by a report from former U.S. Attorney Norman Bay, who was hired to investigate allegations of security breaches raised by two investigators at Sandia National Laboratories (search) in Albuquerque and further allegations that the two faced retaliation by superiors.

Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, called Bay's report a whitewash. Among its faults, Grassley said, were its failure to consider potential security implications from a set of master keys that were missing for three years and the theft of the van.

The van was stolen from a classified area of the lab and crashed through Sandia's perimeter fences at 5 a.m. in a "high-risk" exit maneuver, Grassley said. It was found a 1 days later in a department store parking lot.

By itself, it could be treated as another stolen vehicle, Grassley said. But investigators ignored that a computer containing classified information disappeared at the same time the van was stolen, and the communications and alarm system were disabled at the time.

"When taken together, ... these security failures add up to a red warning flag," he wrote.

The Bay Report, which runs roughly 140 pages, deals with numerous personnel problems, which discouraged the lab from releasing it, said Sandia spokesman Chris Miller, but it is just one part of a larger security effort by the lab and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

"I think Sandia is pursuing a process to correct any lax security. It is one of the highest priorities here at the labs, and we're certainly not trying to withhold anything from Sen. Grassley," he said.

The lab is currently in the process of replacing locks throughout the lab, largely in response to objections that Grassley previously made, and expects to have them all changed by the end of the month, Miller said.

Anson Franklin, spokesman for the security administration, said the problems that Grassley mentioned in his letter have surfaced in the past and been investigated thoroughly.

NNSA, the Energy Department's inspector general and the department's Office of Independent Oversight are reviewing the Bay Report "to see if there is further action warranted by the department," Franklin said.

Grassley and the chief of the National Nuclear Security Administration, Linton Brooks, are to testify Tuesday before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, also will release a study of NNSA's security management.