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DOE, NNSA Management Faults Bolster Nuclear Risks, Auditors Warn

Nuclear arms operations in the United States face greater defensive vulnerabilities and a higher potential for accidents as a result of shortcomings in how the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration oversee the private firms that manage atomic complex sites, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report published on Wednesday.

The Energy Department has moved to strengthen efforts against potential atomic mishaps in response to both historical and newer hazardous events, but personnel at scientific facilities and elsewhere have suggested the management initiatives are overextended and unnecessarily meddlesome, auditors wrote in the document. The department responded by scaling back internal regulations, but congressional investigators in April said the effort's achievements were uncertain due to a failure to assess the degree to which older rules had interfered with activities, the GAO officials said.

"In addition, the reform effort did not fully address safety concerns GAO and others identified in the areas of quality assurance, safety culture and federal oversight," congressional investigators wrote. "For example, the reform effort gives the NNSA site offices, rather than DOE’s Office of Independent Oversight staff, responsibility for correcting problems identified in independent assessments."

The priorities of limiting expenses and adhering to project time lines might affect federal decisions on which concerns that private firms must address through more official channels, according to the paper.

Government Accountability Office officials also noted problems specific to the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous Energy Department branch that manages the U.S. nuclear arms complex.

The nuclear agency's oversight of arrangements with hired firms is "an area at high risk for fraud, waste and abuse," auditors wrote. "Progress has been made, but GAO continues to identify problems such as inadequate oversight of safety and security as well as cost and schedule overruns on major projects. With NNSA proposing to spend tens of billions of dollars to modernize the nuclear security enterprise, it is important to ensure scarce resources are spent in an effective and efficient manner."

The agency has faced shortcomings in its protective efforts, "including numerous incidents involving the compromise or potential compromise of classified information that pose the most serious threat to U.S. national security," according to the assessment. Despite NNSA moves toward resolving the issues, the persistent difficulties were evident in "a recent and unprecedented security incident at an important NNSA site," the report states in a reference to the July break-in at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.

Costs and time requirements for key NNSA activities still exceed projections on a routine basis, the auditors noted.

The Energy Department and atomic office should assign adequate personnel and assets to address issues involving supervision of contracted site operators, and they should "demonstrate ... the ability" to adhere to timing and spending projections, the document states.

"DOE and NNSA continue to act on the numerous recommendations GAO has made to improve NNSA’s management of the nuclear security enterprise," auditors wrote. "GAO will continue to monitor DOE’s and NNSA’s implementation of these recommendations."

The contract operator for the Y-12 site on Monday delivered a formal defense of its management operation after the high-profile infiltration and follow-up probes revealed significant vulnerabilities in protective efforts at the nuclear arms facility, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

The National Nuclear Security Administration last month ordered Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Y-12 to submit within 30 days a formal argument for why it should be allowed to continue operating the Y-12 site. Three peace activists on July 28 passed into the installation's "Protected Area" -- the site's most heavily guarded section and home to atomic arms activities and bomb-grade uranium storage -- and reportedly dumped blood, put up placards and painted wording on the sides of structures prior to their detention.

“The July 28 event brought to light gaps in our maintenance and security operations, and we are using it as a catalyst for a comprehensive and objective examination of all our operations," company head Charles Spencer said on Wednesday in prepared comments. "We believe we have demonstrated a compelling case for NNSA to continue our contract.”

A number of alterations to the facility's "key leadership" group are among reforms carried out in response to the developments, according to the statement.

"Over the course of the past six weeks, B&W Y‑12 has implemented significant corrective actions," it adds. "All critical security system elements have been restored to service; security cameras have been repaired, adjusted and performance tested; and security-related maintenance must now be performed on critical system elements within 24 hours of an identified problem."

The firm's submission to the semiautonomous Energy Department agency is not openly available due to "sensitivities related to security," according to the press release.

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