Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Y-12 Drops the Ball on Security Upgrades

Picture security at a nuclear weapons plant: big fences, expert guards, and state-of-the-art sensors. Now for an exercise in contrasts, read the Department of Energy (DOE) Inspector General’s report on security systems at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

“While Y-12 spent more than $50 million to upgrade its physical security system, it had not met [the National Nuclear Security Administration’s] mandate to develop and implement a comprehensive method for managing and integrating the site’s security and access control systems,” according to the report, released last Thursday.

In plain English, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) spent $50 million on new security systems at Y-12 but didn’t find a way to get security guards and security sensors working in sync. Physical protection of nuclear weapons facilities should be a top priority for NNSA, but the Inspector General’s (IG) report suggests it remains an afterthought.

The overhaul was a result of a July 2012 incident in which a then-82-year-old nun and two accomplices broke into Y-12 to protest the production of nuclear weapons. They made it to the building where most of the U.S. stockpile of highly enriched uranium is stored, and stayed there singing and chanting slogans until a single guard showed up to investigate 20 minutes later.

Alarms had sounded when the activists broke in, but false alarms were routine occurrences and cameras watching the area were broken, so the alarms were ignored. The DOE IG later found “troubling displays of ineptitude in responding to alarms, failures to maintain critical security equipment, over reliance on compensatory measures, misunderstanding of security protocols, poor communications, and weaknesses in contract and resource management.”

In addition to the IG’s report, the break-in led to multiple congressional hearings and an independent review commission, which found that a lack of federal oversight allowed a series of security problems at Y-12 to build. Follow-on security tests found that the guard force at Y-12 was cheating on evaluations.

NNSA claims that subsequent improvements to security systems at Y-12 were limited by a lack of funding, but the agency spent less than 65 percent of the money it allocated for upgrades, according to the IG. The report found that cutting corners resulted in a patchwork security system “so poor that both current project management and a consulting team of subject matter experts determined the need for extensive reengineering.” Partly as a result, the estimated cost of completing the upgrades is now $300 million.

It is not so much that NNSA lacks the money so much as it lacks fiscal discipline. . NNSA already plans to spend as much as $19 billion on the brand new Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12, even though the facility might not be needed at all and could likely be scaled down. Meanwhile, top executives associated with Y-12 have historically commanded compensation packages over $500,000 annually. Outside Y-12, millions go to waste because of the current structure of DOE’s contracting system.

The Inspector General notes that Y-12 “achieved all baseline requirements,” but “given the high importance of the Y-12 mission and in the wake of the [2012 incident], NNSA should aggressively develop and fully implement a plan to achieve [security goals] and address any remaining issues in this area.”

The next intruders might not be peaceful protestors.