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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory at High Risk

Executive Summary

Investigators from the Project On Government Oversight conducted a site visit of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the fall of 2005.1 POGO investigators drove to the World War II-era building at ORNL – Building 3019 – which holds 1,000 cans of uranium-233, easily parked in front of the building which is "protected" by a single chain link fence, walked around for about 15 minutes, and were leaving before guards finally approached them and escorted them from the area.

If the investigators had intended to do harm, they could have quickly detonated a device to blow up the building. In fact, it would have taken very little time or effort to detonate an improvised nuclear device (IND). Unfortunately, creating an IND is extraordinarily simple and could cause a detonation yielding as much as 10 kilotons, approximately the size of the Hiroshima explosion.

ORNL is the most poorly protected site in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. In fact, when POGO's investigators visited the site, there were no setback barriers to protect against truck bombs despite the number of trucks going in and out of the facility because of major construction projects; there appeared to be no fence behind the building along the truck ramp, although a truck with a bomb could park within ten feet of the building; and the building itself appears to have been constructed with corrugated steel over reinforced concrete, which attackers could easily breach.

ORNL is located near the Y-12 National Security Complex, which houses the majority of the nation's highly enriched uranium (HEU). Y-12 stores between 400 to 500 metric tons of HEU – enough for about 14,000 nuclear warheads. The configuration of Y-12 makes it particularly difficult to protect. The site is three miles long, approximately one-half mile wide, and lies between two ridge lines. There are currently five target buildings at Y-12, with multiple targets within each building.

Y-12 and ORNL employ 13,000 people and are both located very close to the cities of Knoxville and Oak Ridge in Tennessee. The impact on the site and surrounding areas of a nuclear detonation would be catastrophic. The fallout from a 10 kiloton IND detonation at Y-12 could result in an estimated 60,000 casualties, including 18,000 fatalities, and harmful radiation sickness for over 40 miles.

In 2003, two years after 9/11, DOE finally increased the design basis threat (DBT), the standard that determines the level of threat a facility's protective force must be able to defend against. The 2003 DBT required that facilities protect against 1.5 times the pre-9/11 level – but this increased level is still less than half the number of terrorists involved in 9/11. All nuclear weapons sites had to implement defensive strategies to comply with that increased threat level by October 2006.

Rather than requiring Y-12 to meet these requirements, the DOE's approach can only be compared to lowering a hurdle to allow a sprinter to easily jump over it: Because Y-12 cannot meet the already-inadequate 2003 DBT, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman has waived the requirement for the facility to do so.

In order to bolster security, Y-12 has begun a long-overdue plan to build a storage facility called the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF) to store the majority of the weapons-quantities of highly enriched uranium currently housed in the five above-ground storage buildings. A facility called the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) is planned to house the remainder of the HEU. The UPF, currently in the design phase, will also be an above-ground structure. The DOE Inspector General and POGO have both been critical of the above-ground design on both cost and security grounds.

There have been several cost increases and schedule slippages during the construction of the HEUMF. Initially estimated to cost $97 million and open in 2008, the current cost estimate is more than $500 million and, after the most recent construction debacle, it is not scheduled to be completed until at least 2010. Furthermore, the proposed UPF, which will be adjacent to the HEUMF, is not scheduled to be constructed until 2013. Secretary Bodman's security waiver means Y-12 will not hire the additional guards required to protect the multiple aging buildings. Therefore, there will be nearly 300 fewer guards protecting the HEU at Y-12 than is required to meet the government’s standards, leaving the site at high risk for at least the next seven years.

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