Nuclear facilitiesY-12 and operator error

By Lee Maril

Published 22 August 2012

Three anti-nuclear activists, led by an 82-year old nun, breached the perimeter security system of the supposedly highly secure Y-2 nuclear facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where nuclear weapons components are manufactured (note that the Oak Ridge National Laboratory [ONRL] is not affiliated with the Y-12 National Security Complex); they then spent several hours in a secure area of the facility, leisurely spray-painting slogans on the facility’s walls – without the facility’s security staff, or the sophisticated $500 million security cameras and sensors, detecting them; to understand what happened at Y-2, we must accept that operator error is an essential problem in national security, and that the problem is pervasive and normal; the only way to deal with the operator error phenomenon is to build redundancies into the system


There is no hyperbole intended when labeling the security breach at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Y-12 Nuclear Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on 28 July as the most objective and eye-opening measurement of the status of our national security since the events of 9/11 (note that the Y-12National Security Complex is one of four production facilities in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Nuclear Security Enterprise; it is not at all affiliated with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory [ORNL]. The incident of 28 July had nothing to do with ORNL). On the one hand, we no doubt have come a long way.  On the other, however, there is still much to be done if we would but learn from this singular event.

At dawn a Catholic nun named Sister Megan Rice, age 82, broke into the Y-12 facilities along with two other seniors. Y-12, which describes itself as, “one of four production facilities in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Nuclear Security Enterprise,” is responsible for “the processing and storage of uranium and development of technologies associated with those activities.”  According to Y-12’s Web site, Y-12 has some of the most stringent security in the world.”

Nevertheless, an octogenarian nun and two accomplices, one 57, the other 63, attacked at dawn armed only with bolt cutters and flashlights. Ignoring signs warning that deadly force might be used against them, they somehow traversed three fences and eluded security guards along with security cameras and other layers of technologies to reach the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (see William J. Broad, “The Nun Who Broke Into the Nuclear Sanctum,”  New York Times, 11 August 2012, p. 1A; and Erik Schelzig, “New Charges Filed in Nuclear Weapons Plant Breach,” Yahoo!News, 9 August 2012).  While the alleged perpetrators did not penetrate the new $500 million Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility building, they did paint various slogans on its exterior.  The three intruders had lots of time to paint these slogans; they were not discovered by security guards for several hours.

What can be learned from this breach?  While the contractors at Y-12 are reported to have added additional security training to their staff and replaced certain security managers who may bear some responsibility, there is a harder lesson to be learned.  What is not being discussed is the fundamental problem of operator error.  Operator error is an essential problem in national security that continues to be neglected.  It is pervasive.  And it is normal.

Certainly, if not supervised properly, or if the security technology has not been maintained — both signs the culture of the security contractors is dysfunctional — mistakes will surely occur.

But operator error is a more fundamental problem than the obvious solution of punishing the unsupervised, lazy, or incompetent. All human beings, regardless of how well supervised, make mistakes on a regular basis. So do their supervisors.  The more essential question is: why did the redundant procedures and technologies fail for hours?  Or, more to the point, were there even redundancies designed into this security system?

Firing security managers and providing additional training cannot be the only solutions to the breach at Y-12.  Operator error is a fact of life in security surveillance which few are willing to address. If redundancies were absent, then why?  Someone should share the blame besides those at the very bottom of the security ladder.

Until human error is considered normal and redundancies integrated into security systems, 82-year-old nuns will continue to breach our most secure facilities like Y-12 regardless of the resources expended.  We can and must do better.

Robert Lee Maril, a professor of sociology at East Carolina University and founding director of the Center for Diversity and Inequality Research, is the author of The Fence: National Security, Public Safety, and Illegal Immigration along the U.S.-Mexico Border. He blogs at