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Protecting the Nation's Nuclear Materials

Los Alamos protective force  members train in simulations where they try to reclaim a facility infiltrated by terrorists.
David Kestenbaum, NPR /
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Los Alamos protective force members train in simulations where they try to reclaim a facility infiltrated by terrorists.

It doesn't take much material to make a nuclear bomb. A sphere of plutonium the size of a softball is sufficient. And in the United States, at about a dozen sites, hundreds of tons of nuclear material are stored.

The Department of Energy insists these facilities are well protected. Critics disagree, pointing to reports of lost keys and guards who cheat during drills. In a three-part series, NPR's David Kestenbaum reports on security at nuclear weapons complexes.

Part 1: Protecting Los Alamos

Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is often called the birthplace of "the bomb." It alone houses enough nuclear material to make hundreds of bombs. Kestenbaum reports on how experts plan defenses at such a critical site.

Part 2: Testing Defenses

Each year the federal government tries to break into some of its own weapons facilities to see if terrorists could steal enough uranium or plutonium to make a nuclear bomb. The drills are regarded as some of the toughest tests of nuclear security. Kestenbaum looks at the live drills the government conducts to measure its own defenses.

Part 3: Re-Evaluating Nuclear Security

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announces it will begin moving special nuclear materials from Los Alamos'. Technical Area 18 (TA-18) to a facility in Nevada. Activists have long said TA-18 has never been secure and the move is long overdue. But the government has a different view. It says security is adequate at TA-18 but could be done better and more affordably at the Nevada desert site. Kestenbaum reports on the decision to go ahead with the move.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.

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