Years ago, when then-candidate John McCain suggested cancelling a presidential debate in order to return to Washington, DC to tend to a fiscal crisis (they were novel then), his opponent, candidate Barack Obama, responded that he was ready to debate. “A president has to be able to do more than one thing at a time,” he said, laying down a minimal standard for competence.
Shift the scenario to operating a nuclear weapons production plant, like the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, TN, where the National Nuclear Security Administration has to make sure its contractor can do more than one thing at a time.
Since last July, when three nuclear disarmament activists penetrated four levels of security at the Y12 complex in the Transform Now Plowshares action, NNSA has been doing security—retraining workers, replacing defective equipment, spending $15 million, testifying before Congress. (For now, never mind that despite all that a man was found riding his bike on the patrol road inside the perimeter fence on March 2).
Whether you like bombs or not, security is important—failure to secure the Y12 complex could have catastrophic consequences for people living around the facility and for people living around the world.
But security it not the only important thing. Safety ranks right up there, too, equal in importance, or maybe even more important, since there is a separate federal agency, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which has as its only job being the double-check on safety at the weapons plants.
Recent reports from the Safety Board raise a big question: Can NNSA do safety and security at the same time?
In October, and again in January, the Safety Board’s weekly reports note Criticality Safety violations at Building 9202-4E, an assembly/disassembly facility for thermonuclear weapons components at Y12. In one instance, workers failed to meet requirements for constructing a safety array; in October, inspectors discovered two areas in which materials were stored without the required five foot minimum separation distance, another violation of critical safety standards.
These are not the only safety issues identified at Y12 lately. Improperly stored sprinkler heads raised questions about whether they met requirements, glass flasks that did not meet specifications for criticality safety were accepted for use in Building 9212; new, unproven equipment was placed into service despite lacking certification of some parts of its hardware that was required to assure safe operations.
It may be that none of these safety problems are significant when viewed in isolation. But taken together, they suggest that NNSA’s capacity to compel its management and operations contractor, B&W Y12, to maintain a high level of commitment to safety is deficient. NNSA’s ability to perform these management functions may also be further reduced by the decision to award the operating contract to a consortium that does not include B&W; until the actual changeover takes place in late April/early May, B&W continues as the lame duck operator of the Y12 facility.
It is not okay for safety to suffer because of the increased attention to security issues, any more than it would be acceptable to let security slip because safety issues were compelling. NNSA must be able to do two things at once—in fact, with a billion dollar budget in Oak Ridge, they have to be able to do two dozen things at once. The fact that they can’t seem to do the two most important things at the same time is deeply troubling.
The only thing more troubling, is they don’t have to care, because Congress keeps handing them money without requiring competence.
OREPA is not raising this concern so we can say “I told you so” when the day of reckoning comes. We are raising this concern so that day never comes. It is up to our elected officials, Senators Corker and Alexander, Representatives Fleischmann and Duncan, to step off the pork-barrel bandwagon long enough to ask a few tough questions on behalf of their constituents.