The New York Times
Tuesday 2 June 2009
U.S. Accidentally Releases
List of Nuclear Sites
by William J. Broad
The federal government mistakenly made public a 266-page report, its pages marked “highly confidential,” that gives detailed information about hundreds of the nation’s civilian nuclear sites and programs, including maps showing the precise locations of stockpiles of fuel for nuclear weapons.
The publication of the document was revealed Monday in an online newsletter devoted to issues of federal secrecy. That set off a debate among nuclear experts about what dangers, if any, the disclosures posed. It also prompted a flurry of investigations in Washington into why the document had been made public.
On Tuesday evening, after inquiries from The New York Times, the document was withdrawn from a Government Printing Office Web site.
Several nuclear experts argued that any dangers from the disclosure were minimal, given that the general outlines of the most sensitive information were already known publicly.
“These screw-ups happen,” said John M. Deutch, a former director of central intelligence and deputy secretary of defense who is now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s going further than I would have gone but doesn’t look like a serious breach.”
But David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear proliferation, said information that shows where nuclear fuels are stored “can provide thieves or terrorists inside information that can help them seize the material, which is why that kind of data is not given out.”
The information, considered confidential but not classified, was assembled for transmission later this year to the International Atomic Energy Agency as part of a process by which the United States is opening itself up to stricter inspections in hopes that foreign countries, especially Iran and others believed to be clandestinely developing nuclear arms, will do likewise.
President Obama sent the document to Congress on May 5 for Congressional review and possible revision, and the Government Printing Office subsequently posted the draft declaration on its Web site.
As of Tuesday evening, the reasons for that action remained a mystery. On its cover, the document seems to attribute its publication to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. But Lynne Weil, the committee spokeswoman, said the committee had “neither published it nor had control over its publication.”
Gary Somerset, a spokesman for the printing office, said it had “produced” the document “under normal operating procedures” but had now removed it from its Web site pending further review.
The document contains no military information about the nation’s stockpile of nuclear arms, or about the facilities and programs that guard such weapons. Rather, it presents what appears to be an exhaustive listing of the sites that make up the nation’s civilian nuclear complex, which stretches coast to coast and includes nuclear reactors and highly confidential sites at weapon laboratories.
Steven Aftergood, a security expert at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, revealed the existence of the document on Monday in Secrecy News, an electronic newsletter he publishes on the Web.
Mr. Aftergood expressed bafflement at its disclosure, calling it “a one-stop shop for information on U.S. nuclear programs.”
In his letter of transmittal to Congress, Mr. Obama characterized the information as “sensitive but unclassified” and said all the information that the United States gathered to comply with the advanced protocol “shall be exempt from disclosure” under the Freedom of Information Act.
The report details the locations of hundreds of nuclear sites and activities. Each page is marked across the top
in capital letters, with the exception of pages that detailed additional information like site maps. In his transmittal letter, Mr. Obama said the cautionary language was a classification category of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors.
The agency, in Vienna, Austria, is a unit of the United Nations whose mandate is to enforce a global treaty that tries to keep civilian nuclear programs from engaging in secret military work.
In recent years, it has sought to gain wide adherence to a set of strict inspection rules, known formally as the additional protocol. The rules give the agency powerful new rights to poke its nose beyond known nuclear sites into factories, storage areas, laboratories and anywhere else that a nation might be preparing to flex its nuclear muscle. The United States signed the agreement in 1998 but only recently moved forward with carrying it out.
The report lists many particulars about nuclear programs and facilities at the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories — Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia — as well as dozens of other federal and private nuclear sites.
One of the most serious disclosures appears to center on the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which houses the Y-12 National Security Complex, a sprawling site ringed by barbed wire and armed guards. It calls itself the nation’s Fort Knox for highly enriched uranium, a main fuel of nuclear arms.
The report lists “Tube Vault 16, East Storage Array,” as a prospective site for nuclear inspection. It said the site, in Building 9720-5, contains highly enriched uranium for “long-term storage.”
An attached map shows the exact location of Tube Vault 16 along a hallway and its orientation in relation to geographic north, although not its location in the Y-12 complex.
Tube vaults are typically cylinders embedded in concrete that prevent the accidental formation of critical masses of highly enriched uranium that could undergo bursts of nuclear fission, known as a criticality incident. According to federal reports, a typical tube vault can hold up to 44 tons of highly enriched uranium in 200 tubes. Motion detectors and television cameras typically monitor each vault.
Thomas B. Cochran, a senior scientist in the nuclear program of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group in Washington that tracks atomic arsenals, called the document harmless. “It’s a better listing than anything I’ve seen” of the nation’s civilian nuclear complex, Mr. Cochran said. “But it’s no national-security breach. It confirms what’s already out there and adds a bit more information.”
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to attribution for the publication of the document.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 3, 2009, on page A18 of the New York edition.
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Read All Comments (175) »
June 03, 2009 6:37 am
I'm just anxious to see how Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart respond to this!
— Sam H., Warner Robins, GA
2.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
As Walt Kelly's Pogo said, back in 1972: "We have met the enemy and he is us."
— Ruth Klein, Rego Park, NY
3.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
"Highly confidential" is a bit of puffery. For classification purposes, there is “confidential,” Secret,” and “Top Secret.” Code word access may be added as needed. Anything else is meant to impress the reader or listener. You have to remember our government once classified a double recurve bow as “Secret.” It has routinely classified embarrassing information even when that action is expressly forbidden.
This is the equivalent of releasing a phone book. Where are the “PATRIOT Act” munchkins to lead us away from such an unpatriotic act? What a bunch of stuff I routinely spread in my garden.
— Arthur, Gloucestre, MA
4.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
"...the United States is opening itself up to stricter inspections in hopes that foreign countries, especially Iran and others believed to be clandestinely developing nuclear arms.."
Is grammar important here, namely that only countries that are currently developING nukes will be pressured, and not countries, like Israel, which have already developED nukes clandestinely? (note: no split infinitive)
— mystic, new york city
5.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
This security breach is totally outrageous. Homeland Security and the FBI should fully investigate this compromise of US national security. That people working for our government would publicly release such a sensitive, classified document is beyond comprehension.
I hope our national security people can figure out some way to undo the damage, but the answer is also beyond my comprehension.
What to do with those responsible for this mess also is a question. How about operating tour buses to national monuments in Washington, DC, and the environs, including the FBI, Pentagon, CIA, and other buildings critical to US national security, where they can repeat to visitors over and over again why it is so important to guard US national security.
— rayleeqwooted, New York, N.Y.
6.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
I would be rather surprised that this is actually a "screwup"...I think the Obama Administration just don't think terrorism is a threat as yet.
— Southernlight, Australia
7.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
God, I thought I was reading the Onion for a second
— laura, Louisiana
8.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
This is scary stuff. The only thing I can think of that approached this was the Chicago Tribune's story during the Second World War about the breaking of the Japanese military code. Luckily the Japanese didn't subscribe to the Trib. Makes you wonder if much of our survival actually depends on pure luck.
— Jeff, Sacramento, CA
9.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
How unbelievably stupid! With one blunder the work of countless measures has been erased. Who needs spies, when the government will just release Highly Confidential reports? The Rosenbergs were executed for turning over information to the Soviets that was worth a tiny fraction of what was just released.
— Martin, San Francisco
10.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
Are you kidding me? How is something of this nature released "accidentally"? This does not give me confidence in the people that are supposed to be safeguarding government information. This should be investigated and the person responsible should be forced to resign. Incompetent people should not be allowed to be in charge of such matters.
— mm, toyko, JP
11.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
Do you really believe that this was released by an accident?
I know that accidents happen -- but it's not the case here. I think that there's more to this story.
— Leonardo, Queens, NY
12.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
How about a link to the report?
— Smith, Warsaw
13.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
Accidentally? Sorry, but the odds are against government information of such importance leaking in error. Billions of dollars worth of contracts are now going to go out to relocate and enhance security at these places. This "oops" will ultimately result in our nuclear research, production and storage facilities becoming harder to verify, spy on and plot against. This one act will force large-scale changes that would otherwise be politically and fiscally unjustifiable. It seems too brilliant to be a dumb accident.
— BMajor, NYC
14.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
Ti's a strange world. Obama supporters state that the supposedly inadvertent release of this information is insignificant. Others seem to have quite the opposite opinion. Regardless, not to worry, Mr. Obama's self-proclaimed omnipotence will quell the possibility of any anamolies impacting our national security.
— Larry Stewart, Littleton, CO
15.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
that's bad, pretty dumb
— greenfuzz, brooklyn
16.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
Re: "The information, considered confidential but not classified,..." ????
"Classified" includes confidential, secret and top secret categories of information.
Is author of the news article responsible for the misstatement or was the misinformation provided by an incompetent government source?
— Bob Walton, Ft Meade
17.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
— Brian, NY
Recommend Recommended by 1 Reader 18.June 03, 2009 6:37 am
At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy loon, I must confess that whenever I hear about leaks -- particularly in DOD- and Defense-related matters -- I immediately think, with great unease, of the inevitable contingent of "burrowers" left behind by the Bush-Cheney Administration.
— AWessel, Vancouver, BC
All Editors' Selections » EDITORS' SELECTIONS
June 03, 2009 8:01 am
It's doubtful the entire federal government released the report. Rather, an inattentive, careless, angry, or otherwise-motivated federal employee or two released the report. If this bureaucracy works like the ones I've experienced, the employee(s) in question will probably remain nameless, face no consequences, get a raise, and be promoted, most likely to a position in Homeland Security.
— Cordelia28, Astoria, OR
20.June 03, 2009 8:01 am
Good to see the adults are in charge.
— John, Currently Russia
21.June 03, 2009 8:01 am
One of the most critical issues of our times is getting serious about safety issues regarding nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and the makings of either. Gaffs resulting in confidential information leaks does not bode well, neither did the temporary loss of some of our weapons in transport recently. Our new computer czar will hopefully have the issues regarding computer technologies that are controlling much of our nuclear capabilities, (power or weapons) at the top of the list, in terms of priorities. These computer networks need to be heavily protected and monitored, as does any sensitive information about nuclear sites, unless it is information that the public needs to know for their safety.
— MissViolin, Portland, Oregon
22.June 03, 2009 8:01 am
Look at them ... This shows the safety and security standards of USA. I think they are working on another great conspiracy against Muslims or their Enemey state.
After this, if any thing happen in USA because of there own negligence, i hope they will not blame MUSLIMS or others outside USA.
— RAJA ADEEL, Pakistan