Part Three: Bechtel and the Y-12 security breach

Foremost among the cause for these security and safety problems, according to a report by consultants just two months prior to the breach at Y-12, has been the working relationship between the private contractors hired by NNSA and the NNSA itself. A June 2012 DOE report3 found that this dysfunctional relationship created a problematic “nuclear safety culture” in the design and construction of the new Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12..  In short, the UPF contractors were far more concerned about meeting production time lines and falsely assumed the NNSA would pay close attention to all security and safety issues at the facility.  The report states that NNSA, “…personnel do not perceive that many of the behaviors important for a healthy safety culture exist at the UPF Project to the same extent that those in the contractor organizations do.”

As a result of an 82-year-old nun and friends breaching the high-tech security system at Y-12, WSI-Oakridge, the protective force contractor in charge of providing security personnel was fired after having provided security at Y-12 since 1999. A twelve-year-old contract with B&W Y-12, the management and operations contractor for Y-12, also was subsequently terminated.  B&W stands for Babcock and Wilcox, but also includes a major corporate partner which to date has remained in the media shadows.

B&W Y-12 also was one of three bidders for the new UPF project at Y-12, whose planning and design stages are well underway.  Two other bids besides B&W Y-12 were submitted in the fall4 for the UPF project, one by Fluor, the other by a partnership between Bechtel and Lockheed Martin, called Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC.  The bids included management and the operation of the Pantex nuclear facility in Texas. 

By its eventual actions in terminating WSI-Oakridge and B&W Y-12, the NNSA demonstrated that a lone security guard was not responsible for the security breach.  The long history of problems between NNSA and its contractors at nuclear facilities throughout the country suggests that firing individuals like the lone guard or even contractors is not necessarily a successful tactic, but rather one designed to temporarily silence critics. At fault is the systemic relationship between the NNSA and its contractors that continually has given rise to a wide variety of safety and security issues at various nuclear facilities, including Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore.  The consultants report for Y-12 pinpoint the “nuclear safety culture” among NNSA and its contractors as the locus of this problem, an agency and contractor culture which presumes that contractors are meeting all security and safety concerns while, in fact, contractors are much more concerned with meeting production deadlines, their bottom line, and leave security and safety standards to the NNSA

At the same time, Bechtel has somehow dodged the corporate bullet.  In fact, Bechtel was the major partner with B&W Y-12, the management and operations contractor fired by NNSA for its part in the security breach at Y-12.  But while B&W took the brunt of the blame when terminated, its partner Bechtel mysteriously dodged any responsibility for the monumental breach at Y-12.  Now Bechtel has emerged5 unscathed from this monumental scandal, and it is a major partner with Lockheed in the ten-year $22.8 billion UPF-Pantex projects.

Ultimately, Sister Megan Rice’s three-hour jaunt past the highly touted security system at Y-12 highlights the decade-long problematic relationships between NNSA and its contractors.  While Sister Rice and her co-conspirators face trial in May, Bechtel, a major contractor sharing responsibility for the documented security lapses at Y-12 that permitted facile access by an 82-year-old nun, just received a federal contract worth more than $22 billion.

At a time in which considerable public attention is focused upon our national spending and debt, where is Congress?

1  Gregory H. Friedman, Inspector General, Inquiry into the Security Breach at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Y-12 National Security Complex, DOE/IG-0868, August 2012
2  Observations on NNSA’s Management and Oversight of the Nuclear Security Enterprise. GAO-12-473T. 16 February 2012
3  Independent Oversight Assessment of Nuclear Safety Culture at the Y-12 National Security complex Uranium Processing Facility Project, Office of Safety and Emergency Management Evaluations, Office of Enforcement and Oversight, Office of Health, Safety and Security, U. S. Department of Energy, June, 2012
4  “Bechtel, Lockheed Martin team wins contract to manage Y-12, Pantex,” Oak Ridge Today, 8 January 2013
5  “Y-12 contractor challenges plant management award,”, 19 January 2019

Robert Lee Maril, a professor of Sociology at East Carolina University, is the author o f The Fence: National Security, Public Safety, and Illegal Immigration along the U.S.-Mexico Border. He blogs at leemaril.comRachael Lee is a graduate student in Sociology at East Carolina University. This is Part Three of a three part series looking at the broader implications of the security breach at Y-12. See “Part One: Don’t blame the security guard at Y-12,” 28 November 2012; and Part Two: NNSA and private contractors’ “nuclear safety culture” responsible for Y-12 security breach?, 21 December 2012.