Does a factory that makes nuclear weapons really need to be secure?
When three peace activists penetrated the inner sanctum of the US nuclear weapons complex in the Transform Now Plowshares action at Y12 in July 2012, investigations were launched, Congress held hearings, people were fired or reassigned, workers were retrained (and got caught trying to cheat on their test), and more than $15 million was spent on fixing security.
Only they didn’t.
Despite all the rhetoric about “wake up calls,” and “attention to details,” the hole cut in the perimeter fence on July 28 was not repaired—was not even discovered—until it was pointed out by members of the public and media in December 2012. The fence was repaired and Steven Wyatt, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said it wasn’t important. The 8’ tall fence wasn’t supposed to keep people out, he said, it was just to let them know they were trespassing. There was no security threat.
Only there was.
In March, 2013 a bicyclist penetrated security again, riding for some twenty minutes inside the fence on the gravel patrol road encircling Y12. He said he was only taking a short cut and no real harm was done. But if he had been someone who wanted to assault the flagship of the US nuclear weapons complex, if he had been carrying weapons, given twenty minutes inside the fence he could have easily caused catastrophic damage. The nonviolent Plowshares activists were tried on sabotage charges and convicted of crimes of violence under anti-terror laws. Charges against the cyclist were dropped, and the public was assured security was firm.
Only it wasn’t.
On June 6, 2013, a 62 year-old woman was waved through the security checkpoint and drove through the Y12 nuclear weapons plant, passing within spitting distance of the buildings where nuclear weapons components are being manufactured according to the police report obtained by the Knoxville News-Sentinel. NNSA spokesman Wyatt said no harm was done, and that Y12 would take all necessary steps to address security issues.
Only they won’t.
NNSA is not committed to actual security at Y12; NNSA is committed to the illusion of security. For decades, Y12 security depended on projecting an aura of invulnerability; this dependence is deeply ingrained in the culture of the NNSA. It is a culture dedicated to a profoundly dangerous illusion. They hope to fool hostile forces, but first they hope to fool those who would hold them accountable.
It may be impossible to make Y12 completely secure, but that does not relieve NNSA of its responsibility to make Y12 as secure as possible.
Instead, since July of last year, NNSA has undertaken expensive and silly measures to punish peace activists while failing to address actual security risks.
Maximizing security at Y12 will require making grownup decisions about what real threats are (hint: it’s not the peace demonstrators who have a 25 year track record of free assembly and free speech without ever posing a security risk).
Security risk #1: Terrain
The highly enriched uranium facilities at Y12 lie in a narrow valley between two wooded ridges; access to the ridges is as simple as cutting through or climbing over an 8’ chain link fence and traversing a low ridge. From the top of the ridge, one has a bird’s eye view of a completely exposed nuclear weapons production facility.
NNSA plans to invest as much as $6.5 billion in a new bomb plant at Y12, the Uranium Processing Facility. Current design plans are for the UPF to be built above grade, alongside the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility. When the HEUMF was being built, several organizations, including the Department of Energy’s Inspector General’s office, noted security would be enhanced if the facility were built below grade. Those concerns were dismissed—and it appeared the IG and others may have been wrong until last July 28 when peace activists spent more than twenty minutes painting on the side of the HEUMF, pouring blood across its walls, and chipping a corner of the concrete building with a hammer.
Similar security vulnerabilities are being designed into the UPF; putting the UPF below ground would add a significant level of security to US nuclear weapons production operations. Doing so would require a culture-change at NNSA.
Security risk #2: Human Nature
When the Plowshares activists entered Y12 in the early morning hours of July 28, they did not avoid detection. Alarms sounded and security cameras (some were inoperable, but other worked fine) captured them on video tape. The failure was not an equipment failure; it was a system designed to ignore fundamental realities of human nature that was to blame, and management that failed to notice. The system regularly registered false alarms by the dozens—so many that guards, of course, became immune to the incessant alarms. Predictably and inevitably, they let down their guard. But the guards should not be blamed for being human—the system and the management that established it should be held accountable for failing to take into account human nature.
The same human nature responds to embarrassment by wanting to do something—anything—to deflect attention. So NNSA has put up fake security fences and attacked free speech rights of protesters instead of addressing real security risks.
Security risk #3: Traffic Control
In the aftermath of July 28, many people asked questions about security at Y12. At one point, activists pointed out the greatest security risk was the most obvious. With thousands of cars streaming into Y12 every morning as workers report for duty, it defied common sense to imagine each individual in every car was being adequately screened. This simple truth was so obvious, or maybe so matter-of-fact, it was dismissed by investigators and media alike.
But the misdirected driver who flowed through the security checkpoint with other traffic on June 6, 2013 demonstrates the risk presented by the traffic access system at Y12. The only alternative available is to stop traffic (reports on June 10 were of long lines of workers waiting to get to work) and search each car and verify each driver. Or change the system.
Security risk #4: Nuclear Weapons
Of course, the root cause of all the security risks is unspeakable—the continuing production of nuclear weapons of mass destruction at Y12 makes the facility a prime target of anyone who wants to strike a debilitating blow against US weapons production capacity or who merely wants to deliver a stunning slap in the face to US pride.
There is, at present, no documentation justifying ongoing weapons production activities at Y12. Today, Y12 is producing the thermonuclear core for thousands of W76 warheads under the Life Extension Program even though the US has committed to reducing its nuclear stockpile to 1,525 total deployed warheads under the START treaty. The $6.5 billion UPF to be built at Y12 will have no mission at all if Congress decides not to spend tens of billions of dollars on LEPs for the B61 bomb and W78/88 warheads. And it will cost much more than $6.5 billion.
If the United States intends to continue to produce thermonuclear weapons in Oak Ridge, it must shoulder the security responsibilities that accompany that policy.
Security risk #5: Denial
All of the security risks noted above are magnified by denial. Denial is in the DNA of the NNSA and is the primary reason security challenges will not be met until NNSA is dissolved and Congress exercises accountability through the Department of Energy. But Congress is also in denial, too quick to accept the assurances of duplicitous and self-serving statements like those delivered routinely by NNSA spokesman Wyatt and other higher officials who address committees. And finally, the Obama administration is in denial—how else to explain the US believing it can build new weapons production facilities while preaching nonproliferation to the rest of the world? How else to explain the Administration’s budget request for billions of dollars to build new bomb plants and manufacture more warheads in days of fiscal austerity?
Whether responsible parties act in time to establish maximum security at Y12 or not remained to be seen. Stopping the design of the UPF until below-grade options can be adopted, a NNSA-less DOE can be reorganized, and other fundamental security issues can be resolved will take time and money. But if it is not done now, it will be done later, by investigators sifting through the smoke and rubble of a terrain blanketed with highly enriched uranium, lithium deuteride, and beryllium.
OREPA PRESS STATEMENT ON JUNE 6 SECURITY BREACH: