Seal of the U. S. Department of Energy
Q clearance is a United States Department of Energy (DOE) security clearance that is more or less equivalent to a United States Department of Defense Top Secret (TS) clearance and, as such, is one of the most permissive clearances granted by the United States Government.
Much of the DOE information at this level requires access to Critical Nuclear Weapon Design Information (CNWDI, pronounced "SIN-widee").  Such information bears the page marking TOP SECRET//RD-CNWDI and the paragraph marking (TS-N). Note that there is also a Department of Energy "Top Secret" clearance, which is, in fact, rather more limited. The DOE security clearance process is overseen by the Department of Energy Office of Hearings and Appeals.
DOE clearances apply for access specifically relating to atomic or nuclear related materials ("Restricted Data" under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954). The clearance is issued predominantly to non-military personnel. In 1946 U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps Major William L. Uanna, in his capacity as the first Chief of the Central Personnel Clearance Office at the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission, named and established the criteria for the Q Clearance. The security clearance process at the DOE is adjudicated by the DOE Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) where an individual whose security clearance is at issue may seek to appeal a security clearance decision to an administrative judge and subsequently to an Appeal Panel. 
There are actually two types of Q clearance: Q-sensitive, abbreviated Q(S), and Q-nonsensitive, abbreviated Q(NS). The difference is that both have access to TOP SECRET Formerly Restricted Data (FRD) and National Security Information (NSI), but Q(S) can access TOP SECRET Restricted Data (RD) whereas Q(NS) can only access Restricted Data up to the SECRET level.
As of 1993[update], Q clearances required a single-scope background investigation of the previous ten years of the applicant's life by both the Office of Personnel Management and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and as of 1998[update] cost $3,225.
In popular culture
Actor Charlton Heston once held a "Q" Clearance for six years when he served as a nuclear armament topics training film narrator for the military during his post-World War II military service years.
- Security | UK-USA Classification Equivalency Table | Los Alamos National Laboratory
- The DOE Security Clearance Process, Security Clearance Blog, July 7, 2015
- William Burr, Thomas S. Blanton, and Stephen I. Schwartz, "The Costs and Consequences of Nuclear Secrecy" in Stephen I. Schwartz, ed., Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Brookings Institution Press, 1998): 433-483; figures from Box 8-4, "Typical Costs of Security Investigations", on 461.
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