Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Time to Downsize America's Bloated Nuclear Weapons Complex

A version of this article was originally published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Did you hear the one about the nun, the drifter, and the housepainter? I wish this were a joke, but on July 28, 2012, a nun, a drifter, and a housepainter snuck into the Y-12 National Security Complex, where almost the entire US stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) is stored and nuclear weapons are processed. They used bolt cutters to get through the outside fence and walked until they reached the building that houses the most dangerous material in the United States. They were not armed, but they were mentally prepared to sacrifice their lives in the name of protesting the production and use of nuclear weapons.

Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli, and Greg Boertje-Obed not only broke into what should have been one of the most secure facilities in the world—one that bills itself as the “Fort Knox of uranium”—with basic tools from a hardware store, but they found themselves alone and unchallenged in front of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility. That building isn’t like any other on the grounds: It contains approximately 500 metric tons of HEU—enough bomb-grade material for more than 15,000 nuclear warheads. In fact, the activists were so alone that they had time to spray-paint Bible verses and splash human blood (that of activist Tom Lewis, who requested that his blood be frozen upon his death so that he could participate in one last protest) on the facility’s exterior walls.

The punch line to this story, if there is one, involves a culture of hands-off federal oversight that allowed security problems at Y-12, operated by contractor Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Y-12, LLC, to fester. As a result, the three protesters were able to slip virtually unnoticed past malfunctioning security cameras, the repairs to which were so long delayed that compensatory measures had to be put in place—guards, who were to be dispatched to investigate possible security problems. The nun and her activist friends had indeed triggered alarms, but the guards assumed the alarms were false. The activists were able to make it through a zone in which guards are authorized to use deadly force and right up to the highly enriched uranium facility—and that is where one guard finally noticed them.

When these three activists appeared before a judge for sentencing on espionage charges a year and a half after their graffiti session, prosecutors were asked how the peaceful protesters had actually harmed US national security. Assistant US Attorney Jeff Theodore replied that they “had destroyed the ‘mystique’ of the ‘Fort Knox of uranium.’”

There are government facilities all over the country that use or store nuclear material for everything from scientific research to nuclear weapons production. Each of these facilities should be protected by the best security systems available. Instead, the Energy Department has apparently been relying on mystique and reputation to provide security at US nuclear weapons labs and production facilities. This has been going on for decades, and Y-12 is hardly the only facility where security vulnerabilities exist.

These security problems could be greatly reduced by consolidation of facilities in the nuclear weapons complex. Consolidation would reduce the number of terrorist targets, cut maintenance costs, and decrease security vulnerabilities, creating a smaller, smarter weapons complex to support a post–Cold War nuclear mission. An independent realignment commission for national labs—patterned after the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission used to shutter unneeded military bases after the Cold War—would offer a real opportunity for much-needed downsizing, consolidation, and security improvements in the nuclear weapons complex.

A shoebox full of death

With as little as 20 pounds of the bomb-grade nuclear material HEU—about the amount that would fill a shoebox—it’s possible to create an improvised nuclear device with the same blast potential as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Creating such a weapon can be done within just a few minutes.

The security contractors who protect the nuclear weapons labs are required to be prepared for any kind of incident—whether it be a nuclear protest or an attack by terrorists intent on stealing fissile material for a nuclear device—as outlined in a classified document called the Design Basis Threat (DBT). This document describes the level of threat a contractor responsible for a facility in the nuclear weapons complex is required to defend against—the number of outside attackers and inside conspirators, the kinds of weapons and explosives that would be available to terrorists. Security tests are regularly performed at the sites, including force-on-force tests, or simulated combat between the nuclear guard force and a commando-type mock adversary team.

No matter how likely or unlikely a terrorist attack on a nuclear lab may be, if such an attack were to occur, it could be devastating. It is for this reason that nuclear material such as HEU must be so carefully protected. Yet the nuclear weapons complex has repeatedly failed to accomplish this seemingly basic protective mission, as illustrated by a series of accidents, failures, and embarrassments detailed in a 2001 Project On Government Oversight (POGO) report on the security problems of nuclear weapons labs scattered across the country.

Take, for example, Technical Area 18 (TA-18) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. This facility was the home of tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. In 1997, a special unit of the US Army Special Forces conducted a force-on-force test at the facility and was easily able to “steal” enough nuclear material to produce a nuclear blast.

The typical force-on force test scenario involves mock adversaries breaking into a facility and using rucksacks or backpacks to steal as much nuclear material as possible. However, this particular exercise required the Special Forces to “steal” more HEU than one person could possibly carry. This did not deter the Special Forces teammates, who went to Home Depot and bought a garden cart. When they “attacked” TA-18, the commandos loaded their garden cart with mock nuclear materials and left the facility, getting past Los Alamos’s security with laughable ease.

The Wall Street Journal noted, “The 1997 mock invasion succeeded despite months of guard training and dozens of computerized battle simulations showing that newly beefed-up defenders of the facility would win.”

After this disastrous failure, operations at TA-18 continued, with mitigating safety restrictions. But despite assurances from the security contractor and the Energy Department that the security holes were fixed, the building again failed a force-on-force test in 2000.

In 2002, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced that the mission of TA-18 would be moved to a far more secure location—a partially underground building called the Device Assembly Facility located at the Nevada Test Site in the Nevada desert. But it wasn’t until 2005 that all of the weapons-grade material was moved out of TA-18, eight years after the first failed security test.

This would not be the last time that a nuclear lab would drag its feet when de-inventorying weapons-grade nuclear material. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a nuclear lab in California, also has a history of security problems. For years, the lab was unable to meet the security requirements of the Design Basis Threat. In 2008, the lab was given a waiver exempting it from meeting those security requirements.

This waiver flew in the face of the very reason the Design Basis Threat is in place: to protect not only the labs but also the communities surrounding them from a potential attack. As POGO pointed out in a 2008 report on Livermore, roughly seven million people live within a 50 mile radius of the facility. The waiver was also in direct defiance of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which stated in 2007: “Sites that store and use weapons grade fissile materials must meet the defined, rigorous Design Basis Threat (DBT) standards for security. The committee urges the NNSA to work with the [Energy Department] to consolidate these nuclear materials at a minimum number of sites.”

Ultimately, the bomb-grade nuclear material at Livermore was completely removed in 2012. The NNSA stated that doing so saved taxpayers approximately $40 million per year.

Although the Energy Department successfully removed the nuclear material from these unsecure sites, the same cannot be said for two nuclear weapons facilities that have recently failed security tests.

In the wake of the 2012 nun break-in at Y-12, security tests were performed at all sites housing bomb-grade nuclear material. The Savannah River Site in Aiken, South Carolina, which houses approximately 13 metric tons of plutonium and other nuclear materials at any given time, participated in a force-on-force test midway through 2013. Unfortunately the guard force at the site failed to protect the simulated nuclear material in one of the tests. POGO has learned that additional tests were postponed or canceled.

Savannah River Operations Office Manager Dave Moody said in a letter to the general manager of Wackenhut Services, Incorporated–Savannah River Site (WSI-SRS), the security contractor for the Savannah River facility, that the contractor “experienced a number of preventable operational incidents.” While WSI-SRS met the overall objectives of the contract with the Energy Department, these operational incidents, along with less than expected performance during the force-on-force tests, were “leading indicators of a lack of focus and degradation of conduct of operations.”

Despite its failure, WSI-SRS was allowed to keep its contract. In fact, it even collected a nice award fee: WSI-SRS received 79 percent of the maximum amount it could have been paid under the contract, or $2.1 million of a potential $2.7 million award fee.

WSI-SRS’s sister branch at the Y-12 facility, Wackenhut Services Inc.’s Oak Ridge unit (WSI-OR), also had difficulty with the security tests following the 2012 break-in at the facility. Just three months after the break-in, Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman released a report confirming that several of the guards cheated on a written security test. He found that copies of the test questions and answers “had been distributed in advance of the test to … the very people whose knowledge was to have been evaluated as part of this process.”

The inspector general’s report called the failure to safeguard the test “inexplicable and inexcusable.” But this was not the first time that Y-12 guards cheated on security tests. In June 2003, a test using four different force-on-force scenarios was conducted at Y-12 to determine the effectiveness of the guard force. It turned out that the guard force performed too well on all four scenarios, and a subsequent inspector general’s investigation found that the tests had been compromised when leaders of the guard force gained access to the attackers’ plans. This review also found that inappropriate actions had occurred going back to the mid-1980s in connection with performance tests at the department’s Oak Ridge Complex. WSI-OR was fired following the 2012 incident.

But this wasn’t the end of Y-12’s security problems. Less than a year after the nun break-in, the facility would undergo yet another security failure. In June 2013, a confused woman drove into the Y-12 complex completely unhindered, right by Building 9212, where the majority of uranium operations take place—including the casting of HEU metal and the recovery and processing of HEU for storage—before finally being stopped by officers at the west gate. The four guards who allowed her access failed to check any kind of badge or credentials. While her intentions were not nefarious—she was merely looking for a low-cost apartment complex—it is these kinds of security lapses and failures that challenge the perception of the US nuclear complex as an impenetrable fortress. Each little screw-up works to chip away at that perception.

These astounding security failures are only the tip of the iceberg. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board recently released a report highlighting a series of troubling deficiencies in the emergency preparedness and disaster response programs at defense nuclear facilities. The board found a lack of oversight by the Energy Department as well as a failure by the department to implement new requirements or address lessons learned from disasters like the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident. The board’s review team concluded that “DOE has not comprehensively and consistently demonstrated its ability to protect the worker and the public in the event of an emergency.”

Unfortunately, even these less-than-airtight facilities are not the constant homes of nuclear weapons and material. The Energy Department’s Office of Secure Transportation is responsible for keeping the nuclear components secure when they must be transported from site to site, often from one end of the country to the other. For instance, when a nuclear weapon is dismantled at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, the uranium portion of the bomb, known as the canned subassembly, is transported to Y-12 in Tennessee for further processing. That means these nuclear materials are transported over 1,000 miles on public highways. However, as POGO reported in 2013, these canned subassemblies can actually be processed at Pantex, significantly decreasing the amount of material needed to be transported across the country.

This was not the first time this suggestion was made. A 2005 report by the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board recommended that nuclear materials be stored at a single site: “With [special nuclear materials] and nuclear component production and assembly at one location, there would be a substantial reduction in secure transportation costs.”

Perhaps one of the most long overdue solutions to these security problems is to reassess and consolidate the sprawling US nuclear weapons complex. These dangerous materials should be stored only at a few sites that can legitimately prove their ability to protect them. Consolidation will reduce the number of terrorist targets, reduce the costs of maintaining numerous facilities, and decrease security costs and vulnerabilities at several labs while still supporting a post–Cold War nuclear mission.

The urgent need for downsizing

For many years, officials within both the Energy and the Defense departments have suggested that it’s long past time to re-evaluate the Energy Department–managed labs, including the nuclear weapons labs. In 2011, a Defense Department memo that harshly criticized the Energy Department’s reluctance to downsize the nuclear labs was leaked to POGO. The memo advocates a BRAC-like review of the labs. BRAC stands for Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, an independent entity established to reassess the efficacy of military installations after the Cold War. Simply stated, a BRAC review is used to reorganize the Defense Department base structure to more efficiently and effectively support forces, increase readiness, implement changes in military operations, and save money by cutting redundancies.

The leaked memo highlighted the fact that the Energy Department is still operating with supersized Cold War mentality when it comes to its facilities, compared to the Defense Department, which has performed multiple BRAC rounds and closed 21 laboratories.

This is not a new problem at the Energy Department; previous administrations have found the Energy Department lab complex far bigger than it needs to be. For instance, a 1995 report from a group with the unwieldy name Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Task Force on Alternative Futures for the Department of Energy National Laboratories found that there is “excess capacity in areas associated with nuclear weapons design and development; and political considerations which have inhibited downsizing and laboratory restructuring.”

A similar review in 2005, also done by an Energy Department advisory board, reached almost exactly the same conclusions and even recommended consolidating all nuclear material at a single site. This report highlights how consolidation would reduce operating and security costs and the risk to populations surrounding these facilities. And a 2008 report released by the Center for a New American Security also recommended a BRAC-like review of Energy Department labs to “streamline the national laboratory system.”

Around the time that POGO received the leaked document about duplication in the Energy Department weapons complex, Friedman, the department’s inspector general, began recommending consolidation and streamlining of the complex. In a November 2011 special report on management challenges at the department, Friedman laid out the case for an Energy Department base (or, in this case, lab) realignment commission, focusing on the billions of dollars spent on support costs at the labs. The inspector general concluded that “the proportion of scarce science resources diverted to administrative, overhead, and indirect costs for each laboratory may be unsustainable in the current budget environment.”

Just a year later, the Government Accountability Office echoed concerns over Energy Department spending on support costs, which then totaled some $5 billion dollars each year.

Working to reduce costs at individual sites in the nuclear weapons complex is important, but an overall review of the labs—to determine where redundancies exist and what labs could potentially be closed or have their missions realigned—is vital to truly cut unnecessary support and security costs.

Inspector General Friedman proposed an Energy Department realignment commission yet again in March 2013 when he testified before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Oversight Subcommittee: “We recommended that the Department, using a BRAC-style formulation, analyze, realign, and consolidate laboratory operations to reduce indirect costs and, as a result, provide greater funds for science and research.”

Finally it seems that Congress is taking notice. The Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2014 included a mandate for the energy secretary to nominate members for a commission that will review the country’s energy laboratories to make sure that their missions are not redundant, that they align with departmental priorities, and that they are appropriately sized to accomplish those priorities. While not a formal BRAC, the commission is the first step toward much-needed consolidation.

Beyond reducing redundancy, consolidating the handling of nuclear material will make it significantly easier for the United States to increase the downblending rates of highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is extremely expensive to manage, store, and secure. HEU can be downblended to low-enriched uranium, which is unusable in nuclear weapons but can fuel commercial nuclear reactors.

The Energy Department recently announced plans to award a sole-source contract to Babcock & Wilcox to downblend approximately 20 metric tons of HEU into reactor fuel. Unfortunately, rather than downblending at a rate of 20 metric tons per year as the Energy Department had done in the past, it is now plodding along at 2 to 3 metric tons per year (see p. 539). That schedule isn’t being accelerated because the government is working at a snail’s pace to dismantle the pieces of thermonuclear weapons known as canned subassemblies, even though evidence suggests there are several thousand excess canned subassemblies in storage at Y-12.

It seems ludicrous that the Energy Department has yet to consolidate fissile materials in truly secure locations. Nor has it pursued an aggressive dismantlement or downblending program, even though these measures would increase security and cut costs while still appropriately supporting the US national security mission.

Congress and the Energy Department are clearly ready and willing to pay exorbitant sums to security contractors in the name of protecting the American people from the possible consequences of a breach of security at facilities that store and use nuclear material—as they should. But when three protesters are able to walk right into the “Fort Knox of uranium,” serious questions arise about how this material is stored, where it is stored, and who is protecting it. Next time, the interlopers might not be peace activists but terrorists, and the consequences of failure will not be merely a slightly smaller bonus for a security contractor.

A thorough and independent review of the nuclear labs, their missions, and their capabilities is long overdue. The 2014 commission on energy labs is a step in the right direction and demonstrates Congress’s growing reluctance to take the Energy Department’s assurances at face value. But it’s time for real changes to be made, for real downsizing and consolidation to occur, and for the security of the nuclear weapons complex to come first.