THE BLOG
08/10/2012 03:38 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2012

Where's the Oversight at Nuclear Labs? Hands-Off Approach Is Recipe for Disaster

By Peter Stockton and Lydia Dennett

As the saying goes, "The fish rots from the head down." This is certainly the case at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where an 82-year-old nun and two accomplices recently broke in, raising serious questions about the Department of Energy's (DOE) security strategy.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement provided to the Knoxville News Sentinel on Monday: "The department has no tolerance for security breaches at any of our sites, and I am committed to ensure that those responsible will be held accountable." But there is no denying that Y-12 was a giant failure of federal oversight. Now the people being axed are lower-level employees rather than those who have allowed the security standards to fall far below acceptable levels, such as Secretary Chu, himself.

Secretary Chu should be the first on the chopping block. He has been preaching for years that government overseers should get off the back of the contractors and everything will be fine. Then, of course, he is shocked when Y-12 is successfully attacked by an 82-year-old nun.

After only one year in the position, Secretary Chu's deputy secretary, Daniel B Poneman, sent a memorandum (PDF) to the department with a safety and security reform plan aimed at curtailing pesky government oversight. "Contractors are provided the flexibility to tailor and implement safety programs in light of their situation without excessive Federal oversight or overly prescriptive Departmental requirements," the memo said.

It should be clear by now that the current culture at DOE and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is to take their orders from contractors and provide little or no oversight. As the previous head of contractor-operated laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Secretary Chu made clear his disdain for federal oversight, DOE insiders told the Project ON Government Oversight (POGO). In fact, he's been successful in creating a culture of federal hands off the contractors in the weapons complex.

Some in Congress also were persuaded by the nuclear laboratories to weaken oversight. The House of Representives passed, H.R. 4310, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, which includes provisions that would make NNSA a more autonomous agency, taking important authority away from DOE, and severely undermining nuclear security and safety.

According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, if this legislation becomes laws, DOE will only be able to "object to an NNSA policy or rule if the Energy secretary submits justification to the congressional Armed Services committees 'and a period of 15 days has elapsed since such justification was submitted.'" This complete hands-off approach clearly isn't working and should certainly not be encouraged by Congress.

One can't help but wonder why it took the Secretary a week to issue a statement on the Y-12 break-in and send his oversight team to the facility. It's also curious why security was determined "excellent" and "good" in Y-12's performance appraisal last year.

Where was NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino during this debacle? Missing in action. Meanwhile, his people are publically equating the security at Y-12 to Fort Knox (PDF). But the only real way to tell whether a site can protect the special nuclear material is a performance test known as a "force on force." A force on force exercise is designed to test a nuclear facility's defense preparedness.

When was the last time that Y-12's Office of Independent Oversight did a force on force on Y-12? Only when this group does a relatively tough force on force will serious action have been taken. For example, TA-18 at Los Alamos National Laboratory grossly failed a force on force and immediately the decision was made to de-inventory the site.

After POGO questioned security at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 2008, POGO was assured that the security at the lab was excellent--but that simply wasn't true. Livermore also grossly failed all three scenarios of a force on force and the decision was made to de-inventory the site; it is currently about 98 percent completed. Why hasn't there been an Independent Oversight force on force at Y-12 since 2009?

Down the road from Y-12 is Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which has more than a ton of bomb-grade uranium (233). It is pathetically guarded. There was recently a sleeping guard incident at Building 3019, a repository for uranium (233). Independent Oversight has been told not to test security at Building 3019 because it would surely fail. Of course, Secretary Chu would be shocked if something happened at Building 3019 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.  

Earlier in 2012, Independent Oversight reviewed the known problem with cameras, sensors, alarms and coordination with the central alarm station and the PIDAS (Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment System) at Y-12. They found serious malfunctions in the system including some alarm systems, cameras and sensors that had been inoperable for nine months. Y-12's contractors (Babcock & Wilcox Company and Wackenhut Security) failed to fix the problem or implement compensatory measures.

Where has congressional oversight been? While Rep. James Greenwood (R-Pa.) was the chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee there were many hearings regarding nuclear safety and security. About eight years ago, when POGO reported on a scandal at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oversight and Investigations once more did an excellent job. But again that was about eight years ago. Before that, in the 80s and 90s, Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) held four to five hearings per year on security. There is a history of Congress taking nuclear safety and security concerns seriously, and hopefully they will recognize the need for more, not less, oversight of these unaccountable labs and production facilities.

The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee finally scheduled an oversight hearing on the Y12 debacle for mid-September. We'll see how that goes.

Peter Stockton is a senior investigator at the Project On Government Oversight. Lydia Dennett is a research associate at the Project On Government Oversight. This article was cross-posted at POGO's blog.