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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

'Extensive' Oversight of Nuclear Weapons Facilities Not Such a Bad Idea, After All, Official Says

In 2010, a top Department of Energy official wrote a memo saying government contractors responsible for safety and security at nuclear weapons facilities should be spared "excessive Federal oversight."

The official, Deputy Secretary Daniel B. Poneman, also said contractors managing the facilities should be allowed to operate without “overly prescriptive Departmental requirements.”

What a difference a nun makes.

When a House subcommittee convened Wednesday to probe how an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists managed to penetrate one of the most sensitive facilities in the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, Poneman emphasized that the contractors need extensive government oversight.

“Safety and security are key performance standards and elements of every contract and extensive oversight is required to ensure stewardship as well as legal and regulatory requirements are met,” Poneman said in written testimony.

The official’s testimony showed how the July security breach at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., has changed the debate over management of the facilities, countering what had been momentum in Congress to grant private contractors the greater autonomy they’ve been seeking.

“We support a vigorous and active advisory, oversight, and enforcement effort,” Poneman said.

“Systemic failures and a security culture of complacency” allowed the activists to breach the Y-12 security, Poneman said in his testimony.

Y-12, the self-proclaimed “Fort Knox for highly enriched uranium,” provides uranium for nuclear weapons. B&W Y-12, a partnership of Babcock & Wilcox and Bechtel National, is contracted to operate the facility. WSI-Oak Ridge operates Y-12’s security forces.

Following the July break-in, the top contractor executives who oversaw security, the security leadership and the guards who allowed the break-in were either “removed” or reassigned, Poneman said.

Republican and Democratic members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations echoed calls from government investigators to strengthen oversight of the nuclear weapons complex, which is composed of the DOE, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the private contractors that run its facilities.

“We need multiple layers of strong oversight at our nuclear facilities. We can’t simply assume that NNSA and its contractors are making appropriate security decisions,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said.

“By all accounts, contractor and site managers’ failures at Y-12 allowed one of the most serious security breakdowns in the history of the weapons complex,” subcommittee chairman Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) said.

The NNSA, a semiautonomous agency created by the DOE in 2000, oversees eight contractor-managed nuclear facilities. The agency’s $10.5 billion budget in 2011 accounts for about 40 percent of the DOE’s total budget.

Previously classified documents show that government investigators warned the NNSA and Y-12 management of “lax security” at the facility at least two years before the break-in, the Washington Post reported yesterday.

Among other issues, the documents showed that security cameras and sensors at Y-12 were inoperable or gave off false alarms, according to the Post.

A recent DOE inspector general investigation found that some security cameras at the facility had been broken for six months at the time of the break-in. The inspector general’s report blamed the break-in on “troubling displays of ineptitude” by facility personnel—problems that had been documented by the Project On Government Oversight.

“The ineptness and negligence is mind-boggling,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has considered DOE, and later NNSA, a “high risk of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” since 1990. The NNSA has not resolved its “long-standing management problems,” according to the prepared testimony of GAO’s Mark Gaffigan.

A pending House defense bill would weaken the government’s ability to oversee nuclear facilities.

“In our view, the problems we continue to identify in the nuclear security enterprise are not caused by excessive oversight, but instead result from ineffective oversight,” Gaffigan said.

DOE Inspector General Gregory Friedman, who testified at the hearing, cited his office’s history of investigations into the NNSA and its private contractors. Recent security and safety issues at nuclear weapons facilities include worker overexposure to the cancer-causing element beryllium and the vulnerability of national security information at nuclear facilities.