Aug 19, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard
(AP) — Officials like to refer to the Y-12 National Security Complex as the Fort Knox for highly enriched uranium, which is why an unprecedented incursion by an 82-year-old nun and two fellow protesters has critics mocking the notion that the weapons plant is secure.
Operations resumed last week after being shut down over the embarrassing incident 18 days earlier. The Department of Energy has called on the contractor that runs the sensitive facility just west of Knoxville to explain why it shouldn’t be replaced.
Y-12 makes uranium parts for every warhead in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, dismantles old weapons and is the nation’s primary storehouse for bomb-grade uranium.
Officials insist that despite the more than two hours that the protesters went unchallenged on the facility, there was never any danger of them getting to materials that could be detonated on site or used to assemble a dirty bomb.
The Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, or HEUMF, is designed to withstand earthquakes up to a 7.7 magnitude, tornado-force winds of up to 200 mph or the impact of a general aviation aircraft. It could also withstand a ground attack, officials said. “Our (protection force) is deployed so that any serious attempt to attack the facility would be repulsed well in advance of any credible threat,” Steven Wyatt, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration at Y-12, said in an email.
But Peter Stockton, a former DOE adviser on nuclear security in the Clinton administration and a senior investigator with the Project On Government Oversight, said the incident hasn’t been taken seriously enough because the intruders had no violent intentions.
“We were lucky in that regard that it was the nun and her cohorts, rather than a serious terrorist outfit,” Stockton said. POGO, a Washington-based independent watchdog known for exposing overpriced military parts and other government shortcomings, has been a frequent critic of security lapses at the facility.
Stockton called the July 28 intrusion the “only serious penetration of a plant” that he’s aware of since becoming involved in nuclear security issues in the mid-1970s.
“It is simply (expletive) unbelievable,” he said.
Other than striking out in the pre-dawn darkness, the three protesters did little to conceal their nearly half-mile trek into the restricted area where signs warn intruders they could be shot.
According to court documents, they used bolt cutters to get through three fences, tripping alarms in the process. They told acquaintances in the peace movement that they spent more than two hours inside the restricted area. The action culminated in the protesters spray-painting and throwing blood on the walls of the white fortress-like HEUMF structure.
The Energy Department’s “show cause” letter to contractor Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Y-12 LLC identifies an “inappropriate” cultural mindset in the plant and a “severe lapse of discipline.”
“Despite receiving numerous alarms from the multi-layered sensor system in the fence line, the protective force failed to react to the protesters as they cut through the three fences,” according to letter.
And once they did decide to investigate, responders didn’t know what to do with the protesters until a supervisor took control of the situation.
Wyatt, the Y-12 spokesman, said after the plant ended its stand-down that the main security force operated by WSI Oak Ridge, formerly Wackenhut, has been downgraded to a subcontractor in response to the incident. Other improvements also were made, but he declined to provide specifics because the information is considered sensitive.
After the breach, the president and general manager of the Babcock & Wilcox division that runs Y-12, Darrel Kohlhorst, retired from his job. He told The Knoxville News Sentinel that the company would emerge stronger because of the incident.
“Well, I think it did show us we had some weaknesses. We had some deficiencies,” Kohlhorst told the newspaper. “The team has really attacked those things and corrected them, and I think we’re actually going to be a lot stronger coming out of this thing.”