With a public hearing on the future of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory continuing today in Livermore, a government watchdog group has released a report calling for plutonium to be removed from the lab by next year.

The Department of Energy is already planning to move all but a small amount of plutonium and other weapons-grade nuclear materials from Livermore to Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico by 2012 as part of its plan to shrink and revamp the entire nuclear weapons complex.

"We want to reduce the amount of special nuclear materials in the Livermore Valley drastically," the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration Director Thomas D'Agostino said. "You don't have a community growing up around Los Alamos."

But the Project on Government Oversight claims in its report that the timetable can safely be moved up three years, which would save

$160 million in security costs.

The group also contends that the NNSA gave Livermore Lab a waiver on the most recent update to its security guidelines for protection against terrorist threats, which is particularly dangerous because of the lab's proximity to homes, businesses and schools.

"This is clearly, by far, the most significant homeland security vulnerability posed by the nuclear weapons complex in the United States," said Danielle Bryan, executive director of POGO, in a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Monday.


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POGO investigator Peter Stockton said the waiver means the lab is only protected against half of the potential adversaries identified by the intelligence community as threats to the nuclear weapons complex.

D'Agostino counters that no such waiver was given but that it doesn't make sense to spend scarce funds on permanent security upgrades for materials that will be gone in four years.

"I'd rather spend the money moving it responsibly," he said, which is something that cannot be done before 2012.

The reason for this, he said, is a combination of ongoing research on plutonium at the lab and the need to make the move as safely as possible.

"This is not stuff you just throw in a truck and drive off," he said. "You have to do it in a methodical, appropriate and safe way."

Two shipments have already been made to move some of Livermore's plutonium to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and Los Alamos.

In the meantime, D'Agostino said, "It is properly protected at the lab. Livermore does a very good job on its security force."

Moving nuclear materials out of some sites is part of the NNSA's larger plan to update, consolidate and streamline nuclear weapons work at eight sites across the country, including both Livermore and Sandia/California laboratories.

The U.S. has been reducing the nuclear weapons stockpile in recent years, and it will soon be just a quarter of its peak size at the end of the Cold War. Part of the motivation for the consolidation of the weapons complex is that a smaller stockpile will require a smaller infrastructure to support it.

There are four potential plans, but under the NNSA's preferred option, Livermore Lab would lose some of its nuclear weapons work along with its plutonium, eventually maintaining 30 percent fewer buildings and employing 20 percent fewer people in that area.

The NNSA also hopes to stop DOE-sponsored explosives testing at Site 300 near Tracy, though testing could still go on for other agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security. Other changes would include shutting down two testing facilities, at Site 300 and at the Plutonium Facility, that simulate the environmental conditions the stockpile is likely to experience to ensure the weapons will last.

Despite the changes, the lab will remain a vital part of the DOE's national security mission.

"The lab's role is changing to reflect the future," D'Agostino said.

Livermore will continue to operate the National Ignition Facility, a multibillion-dollar laser facility, and it is home to several of the fastest computers in the world, which make it the leading center for supercomputing and nuclear weapons simulation.

It will still have materials scientists, code workers and other scientists and engineers supporting the nuclear weapons work. And it will play an integral part in counterterrorism work and supporting the intelligence community with capabilities such as nuclear detection.

"We're trying to make sure the high-tech work the lab is doing is sustainable," D'Agostino said. "I want to make sure that endures well into the future."

Public meetings will be held on the NNSA's plans for the weapons complex tonight in Tracy and tomorrow morning and evening in Livermore. There will be informational posters, a slide presentation and a public comment session. Comments can also be submitted online, by mail or by fax anytime during the 90-day comment period which ends April 10.

"I very much want the public's input on this," D'Agostino said. "I'm interested in hearing from the people in the community about how they feel about this."

Betsy Mason covers science and the national laboratories. Reach her at 925-952-5026 or bmason@bayareanewsgroup.com.