WASHINGTON – A recent incident in which an 82-year-old nun and two others were able to slip into the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility in Tennessee shows that efforts by House Republicans to limit the Energy Department’s ability to oversee such sites are ill-founded, key House Democrats say (see GSN, Aug 6).
The GOP-controlled lower chamber in May approved its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2013, under which the Energy Department would lose its authority “to make policy, prescribe regulations, and conduct oversight of health, safety and security in the nuclear security enterprise.” These authorities would shift to the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous division of the department.
Led by Representative Michael Turner (Ohio), Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have complained that DOE oversight of the nuclear weapons complex is too onerous, and argue it is to blame for delays and cost overruns associate with various NNSA projects. The legislative changes would strengthen NNSA autonomy and ease the process of nuclear-weapon modernization, they say.
The legislation has attracted a broad range of detractors, including labor groups, an independent federal advisory panel and the Obama administration. The White House in a May statement of administration policy said it “strongly opposes” the legislation, arguing it would lower “health and safety standards for the nuclear weapons complex” and reduce “requested funding for health, safety and security" (see GSN, July 20).
Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) and some colleagues argue that the July 28 incident, in which three peace activists were able to reach the section of the Y-12 National Security Complex that houses bomb-grade uranium, shows that the changes called for in the House bill are imprudent.
“These baffling failures in security readiness underscore unacceptable deficiencies at what should be the safest and best defended sites in the country,” Sanchez, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said in a statement to Global Security Newswire. “These deficiencies are direct evidence that we cannot risk weakening federal and independent oversight.”
Along with Representatives Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Energy Subcommittee, and George Miller (D-Calif), the top Democrat on the House Education and Work Force Committee, Sanchez had attempted to offer an amendment that would have stripped much of the controversial language from the defense authorization bill. Republicans, though, blocked floor debate on the measure.
In a statement to GSN, a spokesman for Miller echoed Sanchez’s argument that the infiltration of Y-12 underscored problems with the legislation.
“When three senior citizens can wander through multiple layers of security and reach the facility storing highly enriched uranium, it is clear that greater oversight is needed,” said Aaron Albright, communications director for the House Education and Work Force Committee Democrats. “This security failure should drive a stake through the heart of proposals to eliminate independent oversight of safety and security oversight at nuclear weapons facilities.”
A spokesman for Turner did not respond to requests for comment.
The criticism comes as the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which also has jurisdiction over the DOE weapons complex, is preparing for a hearing next month on some of the issues addressed by the authorization legislation drafted by the House Armed Services Committee. Originally scheduled to take place prior to the Y-12 incident, the hearing will now also address the recent security breakdown and other “administrative challenges confronting DOE,” according to a hearing notice.
An Energy and Commerce Committee aide said the panel’s investigators have been briefed about the incident and are continuing to gather information. House Armed Services Committee officials are taking similar actions, according to another congressional aide.
The congressional staffers were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, and so asked to remain anonymous.
Nuclear security watchdogs and former DOE officials complain that Washington’s response to the incident has so far been relatively muted when compared to past security breakdowns at U.S. nuclear weapons facilities. There have been a number of safety and security breaches over the years at Y-12 and other sites, despite the department reportedly spending about $1 billion annually on security.
Robert Alvarez, a former DOE security adviser in the Clinton administration, noted that former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks was forced to resign in 2007 after an incident in which a contract worker was found to have removed classified documents from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
In response to the Y-12 incident, DOE officials have said they have taken a number of steps, including increasing the number of patrols at the site to seven from three, suspending some guards who were on duty that night, and removing the general manager of the contractor protective force and two members of his leadership team. A federal official at the site has also been temporarily reassigned and the department has brought in a security expert from its Pantex site in Texas.
On Wednesday, NNSA spokesman Joshua McConaha reaffirmed prior statements by Energy Secretary Steven Chu that what happened on July 28 was "an unacceptable and deeply troubling breach." He said the department "has taken steps to remove the leadership team and the guard forces on duty at the time, and to replace them with some of the best security experts from around our enterprise."
Alvarez and others argue, however, that these interim steps – which also include shutting down nuclear operations at Y-12 and investigations by the department’s inspector general and Health, Safety and Security Office – might not be enough and that current NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino should be asked to resign.
“It’s something that really should not be passed over,” Alvarez told GSN. “The issue is why did it happen in the first place and what responsibility does the head of the national security agency hold in terms of his breach and that question doesn’t seem to be asked.”
Peter Stockton, a senior investigator with the Project On Government Oversight who also served as a top DOE security adviser during the Clinton administration, made similar remarks. He said Chu “should go down” over the Y-12 incident.
Stockton suggested the break-in is the most egregious security incident the department has experienced to date.
“I’ve been following this stuff for 40 years and I’ve just never seen anything like this,” he told GSN. “I’m not sure that anybody really understands the significance of it because it’s kind of a fun story: 82-year-old nun defeats security.”
Energy Department officials themselves have described the incident as unprecedented. The three activists reached the outside of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, located in Y-12’s most heavily guarded area, after reportedly cutting through a number of fences and activating alarms and sensors.
As Stockton describes it, the activists “were standing next to a building with 300 to 400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium” suitable for use in weapons.
“That’s the one thing terrorists want their mitts on because in five to 10 minutes you can have a detonation the size of Hiroshima,” Stockton said. “I don’t know that people quite understand that. You don’t need the 300 or 400 … all you need is about 70 pounds at the most.”
Given how close the activists came, it would have been easy for determined terrorists to penetrate the building, Stockton said. “It would have been a cake walk for anyone who was sophisticated,” he said.
Like the House Democrats, Stockton said the incident shows that DOE oversight of NNSA activities should be strengthened, contrary to what the House defense authorization legislation recommends. The break-in should be “the death knell” for the proposal, he said.
Similarly, Alvarez said the incident “is just another reason” why contractors, which manage most of the NNSA weapons activities, should not “regulate themselves.”
The nuclear agency declined to comment on the legislative debate and the suggestions that Chu and D’Agostino should resign over the Y-12 incident. One NNSA official argued, however, that the perpetrators would not have had the opportunity to do as much damage as critics have suggested.
“It’s important to draw a distinction between being on the grounds of Y-12 and entering a high security area,” said the NNSA official, who asked to remain anonymous due to not being authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
“The first fence that was cut was on the extreme edge of the property line, quite a distance away from any high security facility,” the NNSA official said. “It’s not plausible that they spent much time in the high security area.”
NNSA officials declined, however, to provide details on security response times and how long the activists were inside various sections of the Y-12 property before they were apprehended, saying the information was classified. The activists have claimed they spent several hours at the site, according to some reports.
WASHINGTON – A recent incident in which an 82-year-old nun and two others were able to slip into the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility in Tennessee shows that efforts by House Republicans to limit the Energy Department’s ability to oversee such sites are ill-founded, key House Democrats say.