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Break-In Reveals "Ineptitude" at Nuke Facility, Probe Finds

A government investigation into the recent break-in at a nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., blamed longstanding security weaknesses and “troubling displays of ineptitude” by facility personnel.

The probe by a federal inspector general found that security problems, some of which personnel had been aware of for months, “directly contributed” to the July incident, when activists including an 82-year-old nun penetrated three fences and staged an anti-nuclear protest.

The facility’s federal and contractor managers knew of “a substantial backlog of degraded and/or nonoperational security equipment” at the Y-12 National Security Complex prior to the break-in, according to the inspector general.  The security camera that faced the site of the break-in hadn’t been working for about six months, he wrote.

The findings were reported in an Aug. 29 memo by Gregory Friedman, the inspector general for the Department of Energy.

After the activists broke through a fence surrounding the complex, a security guard turned off an alarm without seeking its cause, Friedman wrote.

Other security guards interviewed by the inspector general’s office said they assumed the sound of a hammer beating against the facility wall was coming from maintenance workers, who they said sometimes show up “in the hours of darkness and without warning,” Friedman said.

“In short, the actions of these officers were inconsistent with the gravity of the situation and existing protocols,” he said.

Friedman’s criticism extended to management officials, who he said knew about security problems at Y-12 from daily reports.

“Contractor governance and Federal oversight failed to identify and correct early indicators of…multiple system breakdowns,” the inspector general wrote.

The memo did not identify the personnel involved, and it did not say how, if at all, they had been disciplined.

However, a document obtained by the Project On Government Oversight shows that one security guard was fired for “blatant disregard for the seriousness of the situation and failure to take immediate control of the intruders”—an allegation the guard denied in an interview with POGO. Additionally, at least three management-level members of the security guard force were replaced after the break-in, Oak Ridge Today reported.

Friedman’s report was based in part on interviews the Office of Inspector General conducted with facility personnel after the late-night July 28 break-in.

Y-12 is operated by private contractor Babcock and Wilcox for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous agency in the Department of Energy.

The incident “suggested that current initiatives to reduce Federal oversight of the nuclear weapons complex, especially as they relate to security functions, need to be carefully considered,” Friedman said, presumably referring to a recently proposed law that would reduce Department of Energy oversight of the nuclear weapons labs.

The National Nuclear Security Administration told Friedman it recently created a new oversight office for Y-12 and is “reviewing the current oversight model” to pinpoint what went wrong at Y-12. It is also assessing security at all of its nuclear facilities, according to Friedman.
By: Mia Steinle
Investigator, POGO

Mia Steinle, Investigator Mia Steinle is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight and the civil society coordinator for the U.S. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Her work focuses on government management of the oil, gas, and mining industries.

Topics: Contract Oversight, National Security

Related Content: Contractor Accountability, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons Complex Oversight, Y-12 /Oak Ridge National Lab

Authors: Mia Steinle

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