Bad Watchdog Season 2 launches June 20.

Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Lost? The Guards at Y-12 Can Help

It seems that just 10 months after three nuclear protestors—a nun, a drifter, and a painter—snuck into the supposedly secure Y-12 nuclear complex, security at Y-12 has not improved.

Brenda L. Haptonstall, 62, was reportedly looking for a low-cost apartment complex when she found herself being waved through the main entrance of what is often touted as the most secure nuclear facility in the United States. In recounting the incident to the Oak Ridge Police, she said she thought there was an accident up the road because of the “nice officers waving her through with illuminated flashlight cones,” Haptonstall told Officer Roy J. Heinz. She drove the full length of the complex completely unhindered, right by Building 9212 where the majority of uranium operations take place, before finally being stopped by officers at the west gate.

Haptonstall’s joyride along Y-12 is hardly the fault of a lost and confused woman looking for affordable housing. Most of the blame lies with the four protective force officers who failed to check any kind of credentials or badges before allowing Haptonstall to drive right into the complex. Typical procedure involves both seeing and feeling the badge to ensure its legitimacy. These four guards, including one supervisor, have been suspended pending an investigation into the incident.

But not all of the blame should be placed on their heads. In fact, the whole situation recalls that of Kirk Garland, the Y-12 guard who found the protestors last year and who was subsequently fired for failing in his responsibilities. Garland was the only person fired for the “security incident” at Y-12 despite the fact that several federal and private officials knew of the malfunctioning cameras and alarms and failed to install adequate compensatory measures.

It’s time for the leaders at Y-12 and the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) to shoulder some of the responsibility for these repeated security failures. Just weeks after the 2012 break in, Chuck Spencer, the president and general manager of B&W Y-12, the managing contractor for the Y-12 site, said that another security lapse “would be devastating.” Although he surely meant that it would be devastating to U.S. national security, perhaps he was equally concerned about B&W Y-12’s contract, which should be terminated immediately for their repeated failures. It seems to POGO that these security lapses mean that it’s time for significant change. A strong case has been made for federalizing the guard forces across the nuclear complex—it would seem that, as these mistakes and security lapses continue to pile up, more dramatic and lasting changes must be made.

But despite the spotlight placed on Y-12 security since the July 2012 break in, revealing a history of cheating on security tests, several security system failures, and a “culture of permissiveness,” it appears that security has not improved. Indeed it seems to have gotten worse. Now the Y-12 protective force is not only failing to prevent trespassing but actively inviting it.

It’s not just that these multiple security lapses are an embarrassment to the NNSA; they are also a very real and serious danger to national security. The danger lies in what could have happened. Had Haptonstall actually been a terrorist, it would have been all too easy for her to cause a massive explosion or nuclear disaster once she was inside the Y-12 complex, the results of which would have been absolutely devastating. Since B&W Y-12 apparently wasn’t checking badges, could they truly be sure that her car didn’t also contain three or more terrorists bent on destruction? These are the kinds of scenarios that the security contractor is supposed to be prepared for.

This incident happened just a week after new Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz visited the Y-12 facility, calling the July break in an “unacceptable breach of security.” But phrases like “unacceptable,” “zero tolerance,” and “wake-up call” begin to lose their meaning with repeated use, when all the while nothing changes.

Regarding this latest security breach, an NNSA spokesman, Steven Wyatt, has said that he’s “not aware of any circumstances quite like this,” and that the “causes of this failure will be reviewed aggressively and corrected quickly.” Y-12 gate procedures are being reviewed and supervisors have been placed at each entrance. Hopefully this change will do more than ensuring that no-one gets to work on time.

These security breaches absolutely must be taken seriously. POGO has learned of allegations of a significant security breach at another high level nuclear facility in just the past few days, showing that it’s not just Y-12 that has a security problem. So instead of sweeping one more incident under the rug, let’s try to do the right thing and fix our security problem before someone who is not so peacefully minded is ushered right into the heart of a nuclear weapons complex.