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Nuclear Site Unable to Protect Bomb Material in Recent Tests

Nuclear material

Savannah River Site employees moving a container used to transport excess plutonium oxide.

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Shortly after an 82-year-old nun and her colleagues breached security at the Y-12 nuclear complex a year ago, then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu ordered the Health, Safety, and Security Office (HSS) of the Department of Energy (DOE) to test the security at all of the other weapons sites that house CAT I and II—otherwise known as bomb-grade—nuclear material. A source has informed the Project On Government Oversight that one facility in particular, the Savannah River Site (SRS), failed to protect the simulated material in these security tests.

In January, HSS tested security at SRS in Aiken, South Carolina, which houses about 13 metric tons of plutonium and other nuclear materials. The security tests performed at the site included a series of force-on-force tests, which are simulated combat tests between the nuclear guard force and a mock commando-type adversary team, though how many were completed is unknown to POGO. However, POGO has been told by a senior government official that one of the targets in the HSS force-on-force exercises was H-Canyon—which can at any time contain tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium in various forms and a number of other dangerous materials, and in at least one of the test scenarios the adversaries gained access to the simulated bomb material.

If this security failure wasn’t bad enough, a POGO source confirmed that HSS halted at least two of the security tests at SRS. One of the security tests was stopped early when a shift change increased the number of workers in the area. When local expert Tom Clements, with Friends of the Earth, queried SRS about the incident, the response from the Office of External Affairs was: “A portion of the security drill ran longer than expected, and then the drill was stopped when shift workers were going home and began traveling through the area where the drill was being conducted.” However, according to the source, continuing with the exercise under those circumstances would have been far more realistic than a sterile attack. A real attack during the confusion of a shift change should be a concern and something our protective forces are trained to handle.

POGO also understands that there were some scenarios that weren’t run because of weather problems. It is not clear whether any potential adversaries would be intimidated by the weather, but it certainly seems that the HSS adversaries are. Our protective forces are being tested, and failing, at the most basic levels, while real-world scenarios seemingly remain unpracticed.

Therefore it comes as no surprise that the award fee for Wackenhut Services, Incorporated – Savannah River Site (WSI-SRS), the contractor in charge of security at the site, was significantly downgraded in the first half of 2013. WSI-SRS earned 79 percent of its available award fee ($2.1 million as opposed to the full $2.7 million), which is a noteworthy decrease from the 97 percent it received for the second half of 2012 and the 96 percent for the first half of 2012. Savannah River Operations Office Manager Dave Moody said in a letter to the General Manager of WSI-SRS that the security contractor “experienced a number of preventable operational incidents. While WSI-SRS met the overall objectives of the contract for the DOE to carry out its missions, these operational incidents, along with less than expected performance during the [Office of Independent Oversight Limited Scope Performance Test/Force-on Force], were leading indicators of a lack of focus and degradation of conduct of operations.”

WSI-SRS’s sister branch at the Y-12 facility was fired last year for the numerous security failures that allowed three peaceful protestors to come mere inches away from the building that contains over 400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium. Additionally the WSI parent company, G4S, has racked up over $73 million in fees and penalties for its contracting misconduct.

There have been serious concerns raised by POGO and other independent watchdog groups, as well as by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, about DOE’s contract management, including a lack of federal oversight and a notable decrease in performance benchmarks. It is heartening to see the DOE decrease the award fee for a security contractor with notable failures, but even with that decrease WSI-SRS received over $2.1 million for its inadequate performance.

POGO filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the unclassified versions of the security reviews and tests conducted at SRS. The DOE’s Savannah River Office stated it could not release the reports from these tests because “the five Safeguards and Security Survey Reports (‘Reports’) including correspondence and emails contain sensitive security information, internal reviews, facility configuration, security measures used in the atomic energy defense programs, and detailed analysis of security procedures.”

Although POGO is sensitive to the issues surrounding the release of nuclear security tests, the results of these tests are vital to developing new and better ways of securing our nuclear sites. POGO has found over time that when the test results are released, the problems get fixed. Two excellent examples are the TA-18 Facility at Los Alamos National Lab and Livermore National Laboratory. Both sites were de-inventoried of CAT I and II nuclear materials after security failures were publicized, with admissions that the protective force couldn’t protect the material. In the case of Y-12 there was certainly a mad scramble to fix problems after the July 2012 break-in was made public, although another, more recent security lapse does little to inspire confidence in these fixes.

We should not have to wait for a peace-activist nun and her elderly colleagues to show us our security failures. They should be accurately and completely identified and fixed by the entities we trust to secure them, because the next break-in might not be so peaceful.

Image from the Department of Energy.

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: Contractor Accountability, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons Complex Oversight

Authors: Lydia Dennett

Submitted by Doug at: August 2, 2013
While you are correct that security force tests (force on force) must ultimately address all posible operational scenarios, it is important to note that tests are very carefully planned and executed. During an exercise, if a condition or event occurs that was not planned (such as shift change or bad weather), the persons responsible for controling the exercise are taught to immediately suspend the test. It is very important to identify and control unanticipated hazards to ensure the safety of personnel during these types of tests. Suspending the tests noted in your article suggests to me that the tests were conducted in the appropriate manner. That is a good thing.....................
Submitted by Jack at: July 27, 2013
Why would the government hire the worse security company in the nation to guard the most lethal material in the world? WE have troops in Europe sitting on their butts doing nothing. The nun is a hero and should be given the medal of honor.
Submitted by Jim at: July 27, 2013
Medical use radiological materials 1/2 of the dreaded "dirty bomb" may be found, unprotected,in hundredss of hospitals and blood banks across the nation.
Submitted by Getback at: July 25, 2013
What in the world is going on with DOE! Why the Protective Force are not Federalization as Federal Police Officer not Contractor Guard!!!! We as tax-payer waste so much money!!!

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