Nun Breaches Security at N-Weapon Site

By Annie Snider

House lawmakers this week will probe how an 82-year-old nun and a pair of her pacifist friends were able to breach the defenses at one of the nation’s most critical and well-guarded nuclear weapons facilities July 28.

Armed only with flashlights and bolt cutters, Sister Megan Gillespie Rice, Michael Walli and Gregory Boertje-Obed broke through three fences and painted pacifist slogans on the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, Tenn., before voluntarily surrendering to a guard who had not even seen them, according to a report  from the Department of Energy’s inspector general last month.

The three have been charged with felonies related to the damage they caused at the site, which stores nuclear bomb parts and fuel, but the incident has become a major embarrassment for the Obama administration, which has mounted a campaign to secure or destroy nuclear weapons.

Congressional Investigation

This week, subpanels of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Armed Services Committee will separately investigate the Y-12 incident and look at the broader issue of security at the nation’s nuclear weapons complex.

Congress created the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semiautonomous agency within the Energy Department, in 1999 in response to allegations that a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory had passed nuclear weapons secrets to China. But NNSA has had its own security problems, leading to the firing of an administrator in 2007.

Now, the IG report on the Y-12 incident describes “multiple system failures on several levels” and “troubling displays of ineptitude” in responding to alarms and maintaining critical security equipment.

Despite the fact that the trespassers triggered several alarms during their slow walk through the facility’s defenses and showed up on footage from at least one security camera, guards at the facility appeared to feel no sense of urgency.

Security officers told the IG that when they heard the trespassers banging on the exterior wall of the storage building in the wee hours of the morning, they simply assumed the noise to be from maintenance workers, who frequently showed up unannounced.

 Security Gong Show

It wasn’t until a supervisor arrived that a guard was dispatched to assess the situation, and he told the inspector general’s office that he did not notice the trespassers until they approached his vehicle and “surrendered.” At that point, the guard did not draw — or even secure — his weapon, and he allowed the activists to walk around the area, retrieving items from their backpacks.

The IG also found problems with how critical security equipment was managed and maintained at the site. The site’s security contractor had been allowed to conduct “self-assessment” reports and deemed security there good — an assessment that government site managers signed off on — despite a number of known security problems.

Broken cameras were among the key deficiencies. Some sites require contractors to repair broken cameras and sensors within 24 hours; Y-12 has set a goal — not a rule — for repairing such equipment in five to 10 days. One camera that would have provided coverage of the area where the activists were had been out of service for about six months, the IG found.

Budget cuts may have been a contributing factor to the incident. The government cut back on security features at the site before completing construction in 2008, and in December of last year directed the site to plan for cuts in security funding, which this year rang in at $150 million. The security contractor responded by eliminating some nightly patrols and reducing others. The contractor had also announced plans to cut its staff by 70 people, although it has canceled those planned reductions in the wake of the security breach.

“The successful intrusion at Y-12 raised serious questions about the overall security approach at the facility,” the IG wrote in its report. “It also suggested that current initiatives to reduce Federal oversight of the nuclear weapons complex, especially as they relate to security functions, need to be carefully considered.”   Φ

Annie Snider reports for the daily news site E&E Daily.

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