Experts recommend federalizing guard forces at DOE nuclear weapons sites, nonprofit says

Note: This story was updated at 12:42 p.m. Jan. 15.

Three experts have recommended that guard forces be federalized at federal sites where bomb-grade uranium is stored, according to a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C.

Peter Stockton, senior investigator at the Project On Government Oversight, said U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu asked the experts—Norm Augustine, C. Donald Alston, and Richard Meserve—to review the physical security of the entire nuclear weapons complex after the July 28 security breach at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.

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Ohio congressman questions leaders’ knowledge of Y-12 security failures

Mike Turner

Mike Turner

Note: This story was last updated at 12:50 p.m.

An Ohio congressman on Tuesday said federal and contractor officials continue to assert that senior leaders had no knowledge of failing systems before the July 28 security breach at the Y-12 National Security Complex, but he finds that unbelievable.

“It is not fathomable and not credible that the systems would have such repeated failures and have such vulnerabilities and no one knew,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican. “The system didn’t just fail that night but had been repeatedly failing.”

Many of the alleged failures that allowed three anti-nuclear weapons activists to sneak into the plant on July 28, including cameras that didn’t work and guards who didn’t respond appropriately, have been documented in an Aug. 10 “show cause” letter from the National Nuclear Security Administration to B&W Y-12 as well as in an August report from the U.S. Department of Energy Inspector General. The failures were scrutinized in two congressional hearings in September, when lawmakers scolded federal officials and criticized contractors.

Not knowing about the failures might be even worse than knowing about them and not doing anything, Turner said.

Turner, who toured Y-12 on Monday and had a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, chairs the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. He has introduced legislation that would have the military, rather than contractors, provide security at certain National Nuclear Security Administration sites such as Y-12.

He and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat and ranking member of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, expressed their concerns in a Sept. 13 letter to President Barack Obama.

“From our preliminary oversight activities of the Y-12 site security incursion of July 28, it is clear that an unprecedented security failure occurred due to contractor incompetence and failures at every level of oversight,” the letter said. “Lapses at every level in terms of process, personnel, and accountability could have allowed a disaster.”

The system that was in place was permitted to degrade and may have been insufficient, Turner said Tuesday.

In their letter to Obama, he and Sanchez said the issues may not be limited to Y-12. They said security at DOE-NNSA facilities is inadequate and the facilities could be “gravely at risk.”

Turner’s legislation, called Securing Our Nuclear Weapons and Facilities Act, would transfer responsibility for providing security at certain NNSA sites to the U.S. Department of Defense. Under the bill, the military would provide security for nuclear weapons and special nuclear material at NNSA sites like it does for nuclear weapons in military custody, the congressman’s office said.

In addition, the responsibility for securing the transportation of nuclear weapons would shift to DOD.

It’s part of a debate that dates back decades over whether to use federal or contractor forces for certain types of government work. There is also a debate over what nuclear weapons work should be done by civilians and what should be done by the military.

“The July 28 incident is evidence that the current guards aren’t up to the job,” the congressman’s office said in a statement. “Much of the fault is on the larger system that enabled the failures, but ultimately several of the individual guards failed to do their jobs.”

The statement said the military is already responsible for safeguarding nuclear weapons on bases, including at facilities in Washington and Georgia.

“The military already knows how to do this and do it well,” the statement said.

Turner said he left Monday’s tour believing that officials—including Rod Johnson, who is now the senior official in charge of security at Y-12—are highly dedicated to resolving security issues. He said security at Y-12 today is better than it has ever been.

There were different types of failures that allowed the July 28 security breach, including technological problems, the performance of security personnel, and senior management and leadership failures, Turner said. But he said the problems that existed on July 28, when the three activists spray-painted slogans and splashed human blood on the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, have been addressed.

Turner said ongoing investigations will hold people accountable. There have already been a string of staff changes and a series of investigations, among other things, and security guard company WSI Oak Ridge is losing its contract at Y-12.

But Turner said he is still skeptical about whether the nation is adequately addressing security needs at NNSA facilities.

“We have no margin for error,” he said.

Ohio Republican introduces bill to transfer nuclear facility security to military

Mike Turner

Mike Turner

The chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces has introduced legislation that would put the military in charge of security of nuclear weapons and special nuclear materials at certain federal sites, including the Y-12 National Security Complex.

The legislation is in response to the unprecedented July 28 security breach at Y-12, according to a press release from U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican.

Security at Y-12, including security systems and personnel, has been provided by contractors B&W Y-12 and WSI Oak Ridge.

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Y-12 security breach ‘obvious dereliction of duty’

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.

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