Lawmakers criticized federal officials and contractors during congressional hearings this week on the July 28 security breach at the Y-12 National Security Complex, demanding to know who had been fired and who had been responsible for repairing critical cameras that didn’t work.
“This level of intrusion into the perimeter of a highly secure nuclear weapons facility is unprecedented—and it is completely unacceptable,” said Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican who chairs the U.S. House Strategic Forces Subcommittee. “It is outrageous to think that the greatest threat to the American public from weapons of mass destruction may be the incompetence of Department of Energy security.”
Legislators took aim at federal officials and the “mind-boggling incompetence” of contractors. They wanted to know how an 82-year-old nun was able to reach the “Fort Knox” of uranium, a building inside a high-security area at Y-12 surrounded by fences and protected by alarms and cameras—and where deadly force is authorized.
They learned that one security camera had worked, but it might have been turned off. They were told another device hadn’t worked for at least six months.
“We have an obvious dereliction of duty,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican and chair of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
They also learned that there had been many false alarms at Y-12 due to animals, and that might have “numbed” guards.
Wednesday’s hearing also featured DOE Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman, who signed a critical August report that documented a range of failures during the July 28 intrusion, including “troubling displays of ineptitude in responding to alarms,” failures to maintain critical security equipment, misunderstanding of security protocols, and poor communications.
He told the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee that it was widely known that the Y-12 security cameras weren’t working. Contractors had the primary responsibility for maintaining them, Friedman said.
“The reaction to that was much too passive, much too lethargic,” he said.
National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said camera maintenance had not been prioritized, and federal oversight should have caught that.
Lawmakers called for strong federal oversight of national nuclear facilities. They suggested DOE and the NNSA, a separate DOE agency that oversees Y-12, need to do more to hold people accountable. Several asked who has been fired.
“I’m seeing a lot of bureaucratic finger-pointing between NNSA, DOE, and the two contractors at Y-12,” Turner said. “As far as I can tell, the only individual that has been fired is the Y-12 protective officer who initially—if belatedly and incompetently—responded to the alarms. And he may get rehired thanks to his union’s protest.”
Poneman said he and Energy Secretary Steven Chu are spending hours and hours trying to swiftly find and fix security problems.
“There is no greater sense of urgency that we face anywhere in the complex,” Poneman said. “We are vigorously doing everything we can.”
Federal officials continued to acknowledge that the security breach was unacceptable.
“It’s inexcusable. It’s appalling,” D’Agostino said. “We’ve taken unprecedented steps to address this problem.”
Poneman cited many of the changes made since July 28, ranging from staff retirements and reassignments to repairing cameras and increasing guard patrols. The NNSA issued an Aug. 10 show cause notice to B&W Y-12, giving it 30 days to explain why its contract should not be terminated.
“Lapses in security will not be tolerated,” Poneman said. “We will leave no stone unturned to find out what went wrong.”
Several lawmakers said the nation is lucky that the three anti-nuclear weapons activists who sneaked into Y-12 before dawn on July 28 were peaceful protesters. They allegedly cut through three fences, spray-painted slogans, and splashed human blood on the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, where bomb-grade uranium is stored.
Several recognized Megan Rice, the most notorious of the protesters because she is an 82-year-old nun.
“If she had been a terrorist, the Lord only knows what could have happened,” said Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican.
“We want to thank you for pointing out some of the problems in our security,” Barton told Rice.