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Wednesday, June 23, 1999 Published at 01:50 GMT 02:50 UK

World: Americas

Senate slams nuclear lab security

Bill Richardson wants to keep his department together

Demands for the US Department of Energy to be radically overhauled have put Congress on a collision course with the administration.

The BBC's Richard Lister: "The question of how to tighten controls on the labs is creating friction."
The department has been under fire over reports that secrets from nuclear weapons laboratories had been leaking to the Chinese for 20 years.

China has vehemently denied stealing secrets, and a Taiwan-born US scientist fired from the Los Alamos laboratory for security lapses has yet to be charged with any crime.

'Bureaucratic Berlin Wall'

New security procedures and safeguards have been put in place by the department in the wake of the scandal, but it is fiercely resisting moves to create a new watchdog body to oversee weapons laboratories.

[ image: Warren Rudman says the Energy Department is 'broken']
Warren Rudman says the Energy Department is 'broken'
Congress was rocked by a president's intelligence advisory board report last month, which said security problems in the weapons programmes, including the labs, cannot be resolved short of creating of a semi-autonomous nuclear agency.

The panel was led by former senator Warren Rudman, who said: "The Department of Energy is badly broken and it's long past time for half measures and patchwork solutions.

"It's time to fundamentally restructure the management of the nuclear weapons labs and establish a system that holds people accountable."

But Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, while saying he is prepared to accept 90% of the Rudman panel's recommendations, opposes the creation of "a bureaucratic Berlin Wall" that would separate the weapons programme from the rest of his agency.

He said this would reduce the energy secretary's future authority.

Unique committee hearing

Mr Richardson has already embarked on a controversial programme to administer lie detector tests to about 5,000 laboratory employees over the next two years.

He has also appointed new security and counter intelligence officials.

But the question of how to tighten controls on the labs is creating friction between the administration and Congress.

Both Mr Richardson and Mr Rudman testified before an unusual hearing of four senate committees - Armed Services, Intelligence, Energy, and Governmental Affairs - on Tuesday.

While some Republicans seemed ready to agree on the plan for the new agency, but to become law both the Senate and House must approve the same bill and the president must sign it.

Damning reports

Republican Senators Frank Murkowski of Alaska, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Jon Kyl of Arizona planned to offer jointly an amendment to restructure the nuclear weapons programmes.

"What has happened is a disaster of major proportion for the national security of our nation," said Mr Murkowski.

Over the past 20 years more than 100 reports by various government entities criticised security at the labs and recommending changes, said Mr Rudman.

And he said that among the people interviewed by his panel, "one employee said the (Energy Department) was about as organised as the Titanic in the 11th hour".

When one Republican senator tried to place the blame for lab security lapses on the Democratic Clinton administration, Mr Rudman said: "I think you all deserve some blame", noting that Congress had taken no action despite the many reports issued over the years.

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