Los Alamos Leaks Won't Fill Our Skies With Nukes

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The latest Los Alamos security lapse may mean big trouble for Bill Richardson, but they're unlikely to trouble Bill Cohen much. Energy Department officials admitted Monday that computer disks bearing an undisclosed amount of classified information on both U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons went missing from a vault at Los Alamos National Laboratory earlier this month, in the wake of the brushfire that saw much of the facility evacuated. And while officials stressed that they don't believe at this stage that espionage was involved, the revelations certainly leave egg on the face of Energy Secretary Richardson, who ordered a dramatic tightening up of security after the Wen Ho Lee spying allegations were first aired last year. Los Alamos officials painted a somewhat chaotic picture of security arrangements around the classified material, telling CNN it was unclear whether the material had been inadvertently destroyed, stolen or lost, and that it was difficult to track down the missing data because record-keeping is so unorganized that was difficult to tell who might have legitimately signed out the classified disks.

But wait, before you rush to fill your fallout shelter with Y2K leftovers, there are a few things worth knowing about nuclear secrets in general. Even if evil powers have gotten their hands on the blueprints to nuclear warheads, it's not as if they're an Erector Set away from building the bomb. After all, the general recipe has been widely accessible for decades, with the basics (if not the quantities) even available on the Internet. "This stuff isn't going to help anyone build a nuclear arsenal," says TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson. "But if it fell into the hands of an established nuclear power, it might hypothetically be able to help them make an existing arsenal smaller, cheaper or more efficient. The way the U.S. builds nuclear weapons is so sophisticated that most other countries wouldn't be able to replicate it, even if they had the blueprints — let's just say it is rocket science." But speaking of espionage, Comrade Putin may want a few explanations from his own security establishment about just what classified information on Russian nuclear weapons was doing at Los Alamos in the first place.