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DOE Inspector General Report Finds Multiple Security Failures at Y-12

A worrisome degree of incompetence at a key nuclear weapons facility in Tennessee allowed a trio of peace demonstrators in late July to bypass supposedly high-tech security measures and enter a secured area where fissile material is stored, the U.S. Energy Department's inspector general concluded in a report issued on Friday.

An 82-year-old nun and two other activists were only discovered some time after they entered the Y-12 National Security Complex's "Protected Area," which holds significant quantities of bomb-grade uranium. The members of the antiwar group Transform Now Plowshares allegedly had enough time to leave blood on the exterior of the uranium storage structure before they were finally spotted and detained, Reuters reported last week.

Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman said Y-12 security personnel demonstrated "troubling displays of ineptitude." The government investigator said a plant security guard did not detect the protesters until they approached his vehicle and "surrendered." The guard then permitted the activists to "roam about and retrieve various items from backpacks," according to the internal audit.

A separate guard did not check outside the facility as required when an alarm went off. The guard also failed to notice camera footage of the activists as they trespassed onto the site. Another guard switched off the alerting noise.

Additional security officers ignored noises made by the protesters banging on the uranium facility's exterior because they believed the noise was produced by repair crews.

"The actions of these officers were inconsistent with the gravity of the situation and the existing protocols," Friedman wrote in his audit report.

A camera that would have recorded the actual trespassing had not been in working order since early 2012. In addition, there was a long waiting list of site security equipment that needed fixing, according to the assessment. 

"We found this to be troubling," Friedman wrote.

The federal government allocated roughly $150 million in the current fiscal year to safeguard the Tennessee complex, according to the inspector general.

Managing contractor Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Y-12 declined to comment on the investigator's findings.

National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Thomas D'Agostino said adjustments are being made in response to the July event, including repairing cameras, more regular physical checks of Y-12 premises, additional educational courses for security personnel, and the dismissal of some personnel.

"These steps are just the beginning of the structural and cultural changes that we intend to take," D'Agostino, whose agency oversees the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, stated in his formal response to the DOE report.

Nuclear agency officials are studying protections at other nuclear weapon sites, according to D'Agostino.

The security officer who failed to draw his weapon on the protesters when they approached his car defended himself in an interview with the Knoxville News, asserting he was being set up to take the blame and that it was apparent the peace activists represented no danger, the New York Times reported.

The quality of centralized information dissemination at Y-12 was so mediocre that guards informed the inspector general's office that it was not atypical for maintenance workers to arrive at the site without prior notice, which they said explained why they assumed the noise created by the protesters was the sound of repair crews.

The Energy Department's audit found that corners were cut on buying new security systems prior to the 2008 completion of work on the uranium holding building. Y-12 senior officials were also informed in 2011 to expect reductions in their protections budget. This led security contractor WSI-Oak Ridge to reduce the number of times its personnel physically checked the Y-12 premises.

Prior to the July trespassing, WSI-Oak Ridge in its internal evaluation decided that defenses at the site were sound. Government officials agreed with this assessment even though there had been "a number of known security-related problems at Y-12," according to the inspector general.

Oversight mechanisms at Y-12 "did not identify the weaknesses that contributed to the security incident," the audit said.  Furthermore, U.S. officials told investigators they did not believe they had the authority to demand WSI-Oak Ridge repair its faulty security systems. Y-12 guidelines suggested but did not require that broken systems be fixed within five to 10 days, according to the inspector general.

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