Y-12 Nuclear Security Breach Raises Big Concerns

Government

DOD photo

Energy Department officials and contractors they employed should be held accountable for a break in that occurred last July at the Y-12 National Security Complex, , lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee said recently.

The security breach was at a facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which stores enriched uranium used to make nuclear bombs. Four elderly activists cut fences to gain entry and vandalized the building’s exterior before turning themselves in. It was supposed to be one of the most secure facilities in the U.S.

In response to the breach, a Department of Energy watchdog launched an investigation and identified a laundry list of ineptitude in a report. It says employees of the contractor-run facility failed to respond to alarms, maintain critical security equipment, had an over reliance on compensatory measures, a misunderstanding of security protocols, poor communications, and weaknesses in contract and resource management, the report said. “If the facility had actually been under attack and all these systems had failed, we would have had an absolute catastrophe,” said Michael Turner, chairman of the House of Representatives Strategic Forces Subcommittee, at a recent hearing.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce committee said a plan approved earlier this year to give more flexibility to the contractor-run U.S. nuclear weapons facilities should be re-examined. The plan consisted of governance reforms to address a long legacy of cost overruns and mismanagement at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

“If there’s ever a time for more aggressive oversight, this is it,” Republican Representative Joe Barton said at the hearing.

The proposed changes in the defense policy bill suggest allowing the NNSA to have more independence from the Energy Department, cut staff at the NNSA and give more authority to contractors. It would give stronger internal management systems for contractors, rather than having the government monitor individual items, said Linton Brooks.

The U.S. Department of Energy watchdog report makes a number of suggestions:

  • • Verify that all critical security equipment at Y-12 has been repaired and is operational
  • • Provide additional guidance on prioritizing equipment repairs and maintenance, and on the appropriate use of technology and communications protocols
  • • Determine whether critical security resource allocations are sufficient to meet demonstrated requirements
  • • Perform periodic in-depth reviews of contractor’s security performance using a risk-based approach
  • • Evaluate the accuracy, quality, and completeness of information provided by contractors as part of the governance system and effect changes as necessary
  • • Clarify the NPO’s authority under the governance model;
  • • Ensure that NNSA Headquarters officials have full and complete information on the status of Y-12
  • security operations
  • • Prepare a lessons learned report that can be shared across the complex.

Chandler Harris is a freelance business and technology writer located in Silicon Valley. He has written for numerous publications including Entrepreneur, InformationWeek, San Jose Magazine, Government Technology, Public CIO, AllBusiness.com, U.S. Banker, Digital Communities Magazine, Converge Magazine, Surfer's Journal, Adventure Sports Magazine, ClearanceJobs.com, and the San Jose Business Journal. Chandler is also engaged in helping companies further their content marketing needs through content strategy, optimization and creation, as well as blogging and social media platforms. When he's not writing, Chandler enjoys his beach haunt of Santa Cruz where he rides roller coasters with his son, surfs and bikes across mountain ranges.

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