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Wednesday, May 12, 1999 Published at 07:37 GMT 08:37 UK

World: Americas

US tightens nuclear security

US officials suspect that years of nuclear research may have been stolen

The United States Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, has announced wide-ranging security changes, following allegations that China stole American nuclear secrets.

Mr Richardson said the improvements would overcome a lack of accountability in the Energy Department that had left it's weapons research facilities exposed to espionage and potential theft.

Among the new procedures a "security czar" will be appointed to oversee a new structure that groups all the department's security functions together.

[ image: Mr Richardson says the new measures have the blessing of the president]
Mr Richardson says the new measures have the blessing of the president
The new position will head the department's Office of Security, responsible for all aspects of security - including counterintelligence - backed-up with an $800m budget.

"What I am doing is trying to correct a long-standing problem here at the Department of Energy and that is the overall security complex - it has been directionless, diffuse," Mr Richardson said announcing the creation of the post.

"It is clear that over the past several decades, security and counterintelligence at the nuclear weapons laboratories has not been given the necessary priority and attention."

Under fire

He said that the new measures designed to improve security and accountability had the personal blessing of the president.

The Energy Department has come under growing criticism in Congress after a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory was sacked for allegedly leaking nuclear secrets to China.

The Chinese authorities have repeatedly denied stealing US nuclear secrets, after allegations that they had obtained classified information to improve a neutron bomb.

[ image: China has denied its weapons programme was aided by US secrets]
China has denied its weapons programme was aided by US secrets
Wen Ho Lee, an American of Taiwanese dissent, was dismissed from his Los Alamos post in March after the FBI discovered that he transferred millions of top secret files from secure, classified computer to an unclassified system that could be accessed from outside of the lab.

The leaked computer codes contain the design codes for America's nuclear arsenal.

But although Mr Lee has been implicated for security violations he has not been charged with any crime.

Charges denied

On Friday, Mr Lee denied having released classified information to unauthorized individuals and said that in fact he and his wife had worked with the FBI on a three year programme to weed out Chinese nuclear spies.

As a result of the growing number of revelations members of Congress have been considering legislation to improve security at US weapons laboratories including putting the FBI in charge of security operations and ceasing exchanges of foreign scientists with countries considered "sensitive".

Correspondents say Mr Richardson's announcement is intended to convince increasingly sceptical congressmen that his department should retain responsibility for US weapons research.

"This security reform plan gives the department of energy the tools and authority we need to detect security infractions, correct institutional problems and protect America's nuclear secrets," Mr Richardson said.

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