Perhaps Y-12 should rethink calling itself a “national security complex.” Over the weekend a group of protesters consisting of an octogenarian and two baby boomers infiltrated a high security area at the Y-12 nuclear weapons production facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
At approximately 4:30am on Saturday, July 28, the group, referring to themselves as “Transform Now Plowshares” protesters, posted a banner and poured blood over a wall at Y-12’s new Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF), which serves as the United States’ central storage location for Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU). The HEUMF is a $550 million, 150,000 square foot rectangular fortress holding as much as 400 metric tons of HEU. A crude nuclear device can be made with approximately 25 kg of HEU.
Although security at Y-12 is supposed to be able to stop an infiltration force greater than ten people, this breach should not come as a shock. My colleagues at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) have been voicing their concern about Y-12 security, and specifically the HEUMF, for years.
In 2006, POGO’s Executive Director, Danielle Brian, wrote to the Department of Energy regarding the “inability of Y-12 National Security Complex to protect its 400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU).” The letter stated that Y-12 could not meet the Department of Energy’s (DOE) “’denial strategy’ requirement, which prevents terrorists from gaining access to the nuclear materials” because “DOE simply does not want to spend the funds necessary to hire the additional 300 guards that executives at Y-12 told POGO are required to meet the denial strategy.” The letter also argued that the HEUMF’s above ground design was faulty because it left four exposed walls and a roof, “all of which present numerous attack points.“ Presumably, it was one of these walls that were “tagged” during this weekend’s night raid. According to the folks at POGO, Y-12 made no changes to its security policy after it received this letter.
Tactical Nuclear Pornography: Y-12 has somewhat of a racy history involving security lapses. Apparently, in the early summer of 1996, a man rented a small airplane, and littered the site with sexually explicit photos of his ex-girlfriend.
It’s not just Security: Health and Safety a Problem Too
According to Bob Alvarez, a former DOE Official now at the Institute for Policy Studies, “Between 1997 and 2006, Y-12 experienced 21 fires and explosions involving nuclear and non-nuclear materials, and the site’s aged electrical and coolant systems. A review of DOE operating experience, accident reports, and other DOE performance indicators suggests that since the end of the Cold War, Y-12 has experienced the largest number of such events in the federal nuclear complex.“
In addition, “Y-12 workers have the greatest risk of internal radiation exposure in the federal nuclear complex. Since 1993, Y-12 workers have absorbed about forty two percent of the total collective internal radiation dose for all DOE sites. A deep rooted problem at Y-12 is prevention of radiological exposures to workers from widespread historical contamination and the accumulated back-log of nuclear materials, as reflected in more than 20 years of critical appraisals.”
What is going on down at Y-12?! Is the health, safety and security of workers the number one priority for its managers? Although I am sure some will argue to the contrary, it seems hard to believe that a lack of funds is the problem. If Congress approves its request for fiscal year 2013, Y-12’s budget will have increased by 35% (from $756 million to over $1 billion) over the past two years. It seems that the problems at Y-12 are caused by a misappropriation of priorities, not dollars.