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Audit Finds Multiple Security Lapses at Y-12 Nuclear Facility

September 4, 2012

Contractors in charge of guarding the national stockpile of bomb-grade uranium in Tennessee knew long before an 82-year-old nun and two other pacifists broke through three barriers this summer that much of the facility’s security equipment was broken – and government managers knew it too, according to an article from the New York Times.

According to an internal audit of Energy Department operations at the weapons facility, which found “troubling displays of ineptitude,” the Y-12 facility’s internal communications were generally so poor that officers told auditors that it was not unusual for roofers or utility repair personnel to show up unannounced. They also told authorities that when they heard the trespassers banging on the exterior wall of the storage building with hammers, they assumed it was maintenance workers, the New York Times reports.

The Energy Department’s inspector general, Gregory H. Friedman, said in the report that the episode showed “multiple system failures on many levels,” also saying that the facility would spend $150 million on security this year.

According to the Times,  the government had skimped on security hardware before the building was finished in 2008, the report says, and the National Nuclear Security Agency – part of the Energy Department formed to handle weapons security after a previous scandal – told managers at the site last year to plan for reduced security funds.

As a result, contractor WSI-Oak Ridge cut back on patrols and announced plans to cut 70 security staff positions, although these plans have been canceled following July’s breach, the article says.

Before July’s incident, the article reports, the contractor conducted “self-assessment” reports that concluded that security was good. These were endorsed by government site managers despite “a number of known security-related problems at Y-12,” the report says, citing broken cameras and other unspecified sensing equipment, the Times reports.

According to the Times article, the “governance model” at the site “did not identify the weaknesses that contributed to the security incident,” the report said. Federal officials told the auditors that under their management rules, they did not believe they could intervene in the security contractor’s operations to complain about broken equipment.

Some sites repair broken sensors and cameras within 24 hours; Y-12 set a window of 5 to 10 days, but that was only a goal, not a rule, the report said.

Since the breach, the plant’s general manager has been removed, along with the leaders of the guard force.

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