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Experts: Now is the Time for Nuclear Security Changes

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In response to the recent break-in at Y-12 National Security Complex by an 82-year-old nun and her two accomplices, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu asked three experts to review the physical security of U.S. nuclear weapons facilities. Retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. C. Donald Alston, and former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Richard Meserve each provided Secretary Chu with a letter detailing their findings. They each came to the conclusion that significant changes must be made to the way the U.S. views and implements physical security at nuclear weapons facilities.

Norman Augustine’s letter to Secretary Chu is the most thorough examination of the various reasons for Y-12’s security failures and the future security options for the nuclear complex as a whole. Right off the bat he took a no-nonsense approach: “Failures in this arena can, as you know so well, directly impact the lives of millions of people as well as reshape the world’s geopolitical landscape virtually overnight. Under such circumstances, there can be zero margin for error, and that is the attitude that has been adopted in conducting this review.”

Augustine identified many of the root causes of the July break-in and offered quite a few solutions that the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has been championing for years. Perhaps one of the most important of his suggestions, highlighted solely by Augustine, is the call for a current and realistic Design Basis Threat (DBT), a profile of adversary capabilities used to develop safeguards for these facilities. Augustine wrote, “Review the current threat model (which is said to be five years old). Involve outside organizations from both the intelligence community and the special ops community to participate in this effort.”

But before Augustine gave his detailed list of recommendations, he examined the nuclear weapons complex as a whole and found one of the most troubling causes of this security breach was a culture of permissiveness within the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “a pervasive culture of tolerating the intolerable and accepting the unacceptable.” Augustine repeated what countless experts, reviewers, and commissioners have said before, that it is time for a concrete and legitimate change in the way the DOE and NNSA secure our nuclear weapons. “The problem the Department faces within the context of this review is a culture of permissiveness, amplified by the absence of day-to-day accountability and exacerbated, in the case of Y-12, by an ineffectual governance structure.”

One of his recommendations was to develop a general standard for nuclear security across the weapons complex. “Create a single office (at Sandia or Livermore) to develop standards and procurement guidance with advanced equipment for security systems….These standardized systems can then be tailored, by exception, to the particular local conditions of individual sites.” (Emphasis in original) Currently, each site is in charge of its own security, often having a private contractor for the maintenance and operations of the facility and another for the actual security. Although this model was abandoned at Y-12 after the break-in, many of the other nuclear weapons facilities still employ multiple contractors to oversee operations and security. According to Augustine, “The DOE is currently in the rather awkward situation of having (appropriately) abandoned as unworkable the Separate Operations and Physical Security model at Y-12, yet continuing to preserve that same model at the Savannah River Site (SRS)—with exactly the same security contractor!” He continued, “Strikingly, there have been incidents in earlier years at Savannah River and Rocky Flats that point to much the same cultural shortcomings as have been allowed to persist at Y-12. Change is needed…and needed quickly.”

After months of reviewing documents, interviewing personnel at all levels, and visiting nuclear sites, Augustine concludes that the best and most secure option for addressing the standardization and contractor issues is federalization of the guard force. Augustine states that federalization is “somewhat contrary to my confessed personal prejudices” but that he believes it could fix many of the serious problems in the current system, some of which directly contributed to the break in at Y-12. “The option of a federalized physical security force would virtually eliminate concerns over work stoppages, increase continuity, and offer a clear and highly focused chain of command.”

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. C. Donald Alston also reviewed physical security at the nation’s CAT I sites. Alston was formally the Commander at Warren Air Force Base, and served as the Assistant Chief of Staff, Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration for two years at Air Force Headquarters. He reaches many of the same conclusions as Augustine, spending a significant portion of his letter to Secretary Chu discussing the convoluted lines of communication and authority between government agencies, private contractors, and the actual security personnel.

The investigation of the Y-12 break-in revealed that the chain of command within the DOE and the NNSA is unclear at best. Alston found this to be a problem, writing, “Study of a variety of DOE and NNSA organizational charts could not demystify where authority lies.” This lack of clear authority and a distance between those working at DOE headquarters and those actually on the ground at these facilities led to an every-site-for-itself mentality, something both Augustine and Alston claimed as a cause for the recent security issues. Alston wrote, “Sites leverage their unique missions and geography to justify a preferred ‘alone and unafraid’ mantra, and the HQ has employed a largely ‘hands off’ response.”

Alston concluded that communication is the key, particularly between the facilities that house such dangerous nuclear weapons and material. Like Augustine, he believes there should be a streamlined process across the entire complex to facilitate learning, discussion, and development of new security techniques. “There is no effective best practice/lessons learned dialogue between sites….To better understand and share risks associated with changes to security systems there could be a normalized process over watched by DOE HQ.”

Through this increased communication, Alston would have the DOE and the NNSA develop a set of metrics to accurately measure how secure each weapons facility is on any given day and how secure they expect it to be in six months. “In my final analysis, the NNSA Administrator must always be able to answer the following questions: How ready are we today and how do we know? How ready will we be in 6 months and how do we know?...Quality metrics that provide both tactical and operational level content, deliver today’s picture and, measured over time, expose trends and opportunities for course corrections. Collaboratively developed metrics, together with processes that actively seek input where appropriate on policies and standards also builds trust.”

Ultimately, Alston came to the same conclusion as Augustine. He found that the best way to demystify authority while increasing communication was to federalize the guard force. “The model I find most attractive is the federal model…this model is a substantial departure from the status quo and what you trade in local unity of command you gain in more effective corporate oversight of security operations.” Alston makes it clear that what he believes is needed in physical security is a swift and final departure from the old management system, a “culture shift” that will prevent anyone from falling back into bad habits.

Rounding out this panel of experts was Richard Meserve, current president of the Carnegie Institution for Science and chairman of the International Nuclear Safety Group. He also served as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, which submitted its final report on the secure disposal of nuclear waste to Secretary Chu on January 26, 2012. In his letter to Secretary Chu on security at nuclear weapons facilities, Meserve wrote at length about the pros and cons of federalizing the guard force as well as providing additional recommendations and solutions.

He also critiqued the severe lack of federal oversight saying, “The overall situation reveals significant failings in oversight by DOE.” Like Augustine and Alston, he found that part of the reason for this failure was due to a convoluted structure of authority within the DOE. “Part of the challenge in providing proper oversight may relate to the extraordinarily complicated administrative structure within the DOE, with security responsibilities spread across several offices at headquarters and between headquarters and the DOE field offices. Indeed, we have had some difficulty in obtaining a clear organization chart that defines the structure for security oversight within DOE.” Meserve and Alston both specifically mentioned how difficult it was to obtain and understand a departmental organization chart, but Meserve went on to recommend a full scale examination into the internal management structure of the DOE.

In addition to providing his solutions to the larger cultural and organizational problems that led to the Y-12 break-in, Meserve also devoted a large portion of his letter to discussing the federalization of the guard force. Meserve found that the federalization model would be effective in solving many of the failures that contributed the break-in, including the fact that it would be an opportunity for a clean slate. “One additional factor in favor of federalization is that a dramatic change of this nature could facilitate the introduction of a new security culture.” Yet, ultimately, he determines that federalization should not be the first or only solution explored. “I conclude that a decision to federalize all or a part of the protective force would be difficult, would be expensive to accomplish, and would create some new challenges. In the absence of compelling benefits, it is probably not warranted. But it is an approach that may be worthy of consideration if efforts to make the necessary changes cannot be accomplished by a less drastic approach.”

It is interesting that Meserve found there to be an “absence of compelling benefits” in the federalization model since just a page before he wrote, “Federalization could shorten chains of command between federal policymakers and the implementers of security, would encourage consistent application of policies and procedures across sites, would reflect the reality that security is a central federal function of these sites, and perhaps most importantly, would eliminate the potential for strikes by the protective force.” It appears that Meserve believes that federalization could potentially fix many of the systemic problems that have plagued the nuclear complex for years, including a lackluster and permissive security culture, but seems unsure if the benefits can outweigh the disadvantages of such a monumental and hotly debated transformation. Although Meserve waffles a bit on the merits of moving to a federalized system, he reiterates many of the same points Augustine and Alston made regarding the need for a new security culture across the complex.  

Each reviewer found that a lack of clearly defined job roles and lines of authority led to safety and security issues falling through the cracks. Augustine referred to this as “compartmentalization of responsibility” and Meserve reiterated many times in his letter that the first priority of all employed at these sites needs to be safety and security. “The essential ingredient for assuring safe operations is the establishment of a culture in which safety is the highest priority….That is, everyone on the site should understand that security is his or her responsibility.”

Each of these experts spent roughly two months steeped in as much weapons facility information as they could gather, and they all provided concise, detailed recommendations that, if implemented, could truly change the nuclear security culture and management systems for the better. POGO urges Secretary Chu to take these recommendations seriously and not let them fall by the wayside as so many commission reports have done in the past. For instance, in 2005 when Admiral Richard Mies was charged with this exact same task, of reviewing and studying the multitude of factors that affect nuclear security, he wrote:

Of greatest concern, our panel finds that past studies and reviews of DOE/NNSA security have reached similar findings regarding the cultural, personnel, organizational, policy and procedural challenges that exist within DOE and NNSA. Many of these issues are not new; many continue to exist because of a lack of clear accountability….Accordingly, our panel strongly recommends that NNSA continue to work within DOE to develop, with urgency, a more robust, integrated DOE/NNSA-wide process to provide accountability and follow-up on security findings and recommendations.

POGO agrees with Augustine, Alston, Meserve, and Mies—the DOE’s very own experts—that now is the time for comprehensive and legitimate change in the way we view and execute physical security at U.S. nuclear weapons facilities.

By: Lydia Dennett
Investigator, POGO

lydia dennett Lydia Dennett is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Lydia handles whistleblower intake and works on nuclear safety and security at the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons Complex Oversight

Authors: Lydia Dennett

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