Nuclear plant safetyPart One: Don’t blame the security guard at Y-12

By Robert Lee Maril and Rachael Lee

Published 28 November 2012

On 28 July 2012, using only wire cutters and flashlights, peace activist Sister Susan Rice, 82 years of age, and two other confederates – both senior citizens themselves — successfully bypassed the elaborate, and expensive, security system around Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; though the lone security guard at Y-12 has become a convenient scapegoat, it now appears that the breach reflects system-wide security and safety concerns at nuclear facilities under the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA); the breach is best understood as the end result of long standing management and organizational failures within and between DOE, NNSA, and NNSA’s private contractors; the NNSA, in fact, appears burdened by many of the same issues it was created in 2000 to resolve

While the tourniquet appears to have been applied to mainstream news coverage of the breach at Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a government document published only a few months prior to this monumental rupture on 28 July suggests systemic bureaucratic blunders at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the private contractors it employs.  Initial media and governmental reports of this most highly secured nuclear facility focused blame on one security guard, but it now appears that the security breach at Y-12 is yet another monumental misstep in a decade-long series of security and safety boondoggles symptomatic of mismanagement issues within the (NNSA), including NNSA’s relationship to its private contractors.

Using only wire cutters and flashlights, Sister Susan Rice, 82 years of age, and two other senior confederates successfully bypassed “an extensive security mechanism that relies on well-trained and extensively equipped protective force, advanced technology, and a variety of physical fortifications” with an annual price tag to the taxpayer of $150 million. The three peace activists then spent three hours just twenty feet from 179 tons of enriched uranium before finally being arrested by a security guard.

The immediate response from Gregory H. Friedman’s investigation of the fractured security system at Y-12 — Friedman is the Inspector General of the Department of Energy — documented a wide range of problems, from inoperable and unmaintained security cameras to additional security equipment that malfunctioned or was not properly maintained, ineptitude of the Y-12 contractor for Security Personnel, WSI-Oakridge, and B&W Y-12 for Management and Operation. The finger was also pointed at a failed security “governance model” within and between these private contractors and the NNSA. (see: A Special Report: Inquiry into the Security Breach at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s y-12 National Security Complex). Also blamed was a security guard who arrested the three intruders and was immediately fired after the incident became public. Friedman’s report suggests eight different actions immediately to be instituted.