The recent security breach at the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, raises the existential question for the National Nuclear Security Administration. In light of persistent management failures, documented by the General Accounting Office, the Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, and Inspector General reports, the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance believes the NNSA should be abolished, and management of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex should revert to the Department of Energy.
Asking the right questions
The National Nuclear Security Administration, responsible for managing the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile and the facilities which engineer, design, produce and test nuclear warheads, has failed to provide significant “value added” to the federal government since its founding in 2000. Instead, NNSA management incompetence has resulted in massive budget overruns and consistent failure to meet schedules on major construction projects. NNSA failure to provide rigorous oversight of operating contractors at weapons sites has led to breakdowns in basic security operations. NNSA has been the target of remarkable criticisms by the General Accounting Office and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, including a remarkable summary of mismanagement on safety, funding, contractor oversight, and project management incompetence released on Tuesday, September 12, 2012 by the GAO in its testimony before Congress.
Aside from an occasional personnel shuffle and a rigorous effort to shift blame to contractors, NNSA’s response to criticisms is consistently, “We get it now, we’re compiling lessons learned, we’ll do better.”
But the persistent and recurring evidence of management incompetence at NNSA should raise the existential questions:
• How does the government receive value added from the NNSA?
• Does the NNSA do more harm than good?
• Is the management culture at NNSA fixable?
The Defense Authorization Act of 2000 created the National Nuclear Security Administration as a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy. With the exception of the Secretary of Energy, NNSA answers to no one in DOE; the legislation specifies that NNSA contractors are accountable only to NNSA and no DOE official other than the Secretary of Energy.
The apparent rationale for establishing an administration within an agency was to provide a management structure that was focused on military nuclear issues—nuclear weapons, nonproliferation, and naval nuclear fuel.
The act also specifies that NNSA is to carry out its work “consistent with the principles of protecting the environment and safeguarding the safety and health of the public and of the workforce of the [NNSA].” One of these principles, transparency, was well-established as fundamental to the process of environmental protection and safety and health safeguards; engagement of the public was codified in the National Environmental Policy Act and was widely seen as an antidote to the historic practices of the Department of Energy and its predecessors (ERDA and AEC) which led, absent any regulatory or public accountability, to catastrophic environmental contamination and significant worker and public exposure to radioactive and chemical contamination from weapons design, production and testing activities. Many weapons sites were added to EPA’s National Priorities List and designated “Superfund” sites.
In the years since 2000, the NNSA has provided repeated examples of its inability to perform its mission.
Accountable to no one
In Oak Ridge, we have experienced the virtual elimination of public accountability; requests for information and briefings to supplement legal hearings receive not even the courtesy of denial. In public fora, simple questions of clarification are often met with a knee-jerk claim of “classified,” even when the information being asked about is in a published DOE document. This consistent refusal to respond to simple requests for information has had the desired effect—the public, for the most part, has given up asking for information from NNSA.
OREPA views the failure of NNSA to provide appropriate, substantive information in response to legitimate public requests, and the refusal at times to respond at all or even to acknowledge a request, as a management failure. Before NNSA, Oak Ridge was a model held up for emulation, we had case studies of win-win public engagement processes; this was simply cast aside when NNSA decided it was easier to operate with impunity. They were right—the public lacked funds to challenge NNSA’s decisions in court and Congress lacked interest in providing oversight. Add to this the culture shift after September 11, 2001, and you have a recipe for problems—a national security agency answerable to no one wraps itself in secrecy and sheds accountability.
Decisions taken by NNSA to shield itself from scrutiny and accountability are not without consequence. They are management decisions, and they have weakened processes which might have addressed some of the significant challenges NNSA now faces at considerable savings to the federal budget.
When others peek in
In recent years, two federal agencies have had occasion to take a hard look at NNSA’s operations, the General Accounting Office and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. GAO looked at big questions about NNSA and determined that NNSA lacks the competence to manage major projects. This was not news to those who have watched budgets bloat and schedules disappear into the infinite future on construction projects. The Environmental Impact Statement for the Uranium Processing Facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee took six years to prepare—not because it was extraordinarily complex or remarkably sufficient; it was neither. The Draft failed to include the most significant environmental impacts—the disruption of eight wetlands areas—and even the final EIS is virtually silent on the impacts of excavation of 400,000 cubic yards of soil and the disposal of the contaminated spoil.
The GAO reports singled out the UPF at Y12 in Oak Ridge as a case study in NNSA management failure. The GAO noted NNSA has failed to meet best practices in the design timeline of the UPF; the facility is being designed around at least ten unproven technologies, six of which will not have achieved Technology Readiness Level 6, the industry standard, by the time concrete is poured for the UPF. The GAO notes the failure of any one of these technologies could result in delays and/or expensive and extensive re-design of the facility on the fly. (As if to demonstrate the GOA’s prescience, the production line test of the most mature of the ten technologies, microwave casting, failed in February 2012; core components were returned to the manufacturer for remanufacturing.)
Technology is not the only management failure GAO found. Again using the UPF as an example, GAO noted NNSA was unable to provide credible cost estimates for the project. NNSA guidelines call for independent cost estimates at key intervals in the planning/design/construction process. With the UPF at 75% design completion, no independent cost estimate has yet been produced. Even in this year’s budget submission to Congress, NNSA provided no outyear figures for the UPF—only “TBD.” GAO points out this failure is not just in the accounting department—NNSA lacks a systematic process for providing realistic cost estimates—it’s a management problem. The potential for fraud or cost overruns is enormous. The UPF, originally projected to cost between $600 million and $1.5 billion, has already overspent the low-end of that estimate—more than half a billion dollars has been spent on design, and the project has only reached the 75% design completion level. Undaunted, and overriding its own guidance on funding, NNSA is pursuing an expanded budget—$340 million—to “accelerate construction” of the UPF in the FY 2013 budget. NNSA has also come up with a scheme to artificially divide the site preparation portion of construction into mini-projects to avoid headquarters oversight and lubricate the money pipeline. Projects over $100 million require headquarters approval; NNSA-Oak Ridge plans to skirt that by breaking its site preparation into smaller parcels of work.
The GAO is not the only agency to address management issues at NNSA. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has a different relationship with NNSA. DNFSB personnel are assigned to NNSA sites and have daily interactions to address safety issues within the limited purview of DNFSB. DNFSB’s concerns are articulated in a general way in one-page weekly reports from site staff to DNFSB headquarters; the details of their concerns and efforts to resolve them usually take place out of sight of the public. Resolution of DNFSB concerns usually appears in a weekly report. Occasionally, DNFSB’s efforts to resolve safety issues “in-house” are not satisfactory and the dirty laundry is aired in a letter or report. This happened last April, when DNFSB indicated the UPF design process had not incorporated safety concerns. Management decisions—to collapse two Critical Decision milestones, and to forgo preparation of a “Preliminary Safety Design Report”—resulted in a UPF design that, at 75% completion, failed to integrate safety into the UPF design. What’s more, DNFSB noted, decisions to relax criticality safety standards for portions of the UPF resulted in design decisions that were “not protective or worker of public health and safety.” Following the release of its concerns, DNFSB has announced an unusual public hearing in Knoxville in October to receive reports from NNSA officials. What is important to note is that the Safety Board’s concerns are not the result of NNSA failure to implement its design procedures, they are the result of management decisions to forgo the procedures required by DOE and NNSA guidance and rules.
Post 7/28 security
Finally, we come to the July 28 security breach at the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge. In the wee hours of the morning, three peace activists conducted the Transform Now Plowshares action. They cut through four fences passed through the high-security PIDAS zone, and physically assaulted the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility with spray paint, hammers, and their own blood. In the aftermath, NNSA pointed fingers at its contractors—WSI, Inc and B&W Y12 Technical Services, LLC. A few contractors lost their jobs or were reassigned; the security contract was rolled into the prime B&W contract; a show-cause notice was issued to B&W; the entire complex was placed on a two-week security stand-down for “retraining.” NNSA headquarters announced a review would take place.
It was not until the Inspector General’s Office released the results of its investigation that the spotlight was turned to the NNSA. The IG report was scathing; it outlined NNSA management incompetence, noted that NNSA’s defense included an assertion that it was forbidden to exercise oversight over contractors once they (contractors) developed a plan to address such things as inoperable security cameras, and an observation that NNSA often relies on contractors self-assessments when exercising its oversight responsibilities.
To date, NNSA has announced only one personnel reassignment as a result of the July 28 security breach and the subsequent disclosures and assignment of responsibility.
Clearly, the July 28 incursion into and through the ultra-high security zone was a wake up call for NNSA and the contractors. What is less clear is what actual effect the security stand-down had in changing the security culture for the better at Y12. Three post-July 28 examples may be illustrative.
Since they re-trained
On August 5, 2012, members of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance gathered for their weekly Sunday evening vigil, conducted in the same spot at the same time every Sunday for nearly 12 years without exception. This year, because the Sunday vigil fell on the eve of OREPA’s annual commemoration of Hiroshima Day (Monday, August 6, 2012), when we hold a Names and Remembrance Ceremony from 6:00-9:00am, OREPA announced in June that some people might “Occupy” Y12 overnight, from the Sunday vigil until the Monday morning event. On Friday, August 3, OREPA’s coordinator received a call from a Wackenhut community liaison, former Oak Ridge police captain Bill Moehl, to discuss the overnight “Occupation.” He reported that security personnel had discussed OREPA’s plans and has established two conditions—no tents and no sleeping bags. As these conditions were already part of our expectations and our publicity, agreement was easily reached.
On Sunday, August 5, the vigil concluded around 7:30pm, and by 8:30 most people had left the site. At 8:40 Wackenhut security personnel approached the remaining vigilers and told them they had until 9:00pm to vacate the site or face arrest. Asked the authority for this reversal, he declared it was his own authority. After a flurry of phone calls with Bill Moehl (by OREPA members and the Wackenhut personnel) a decision was reached that vigilers could remain, but could not fall asleep or lie down. Vigilers agreed to these conditions and began an internal discussion (there were about 9 people) about taking shifts to Occupy Y12. At 10:00pm, the Wackenhut security office approached again with two Oak Ridge city police officers and declared a 10:30 deadline to vacate the site. Asked again whose authority, he said, “NPO.” Asked what NPO meant, he confessed it was an acronym and he didn’t know what it stood for. But the bottom line was someone at NNSA had handed down an edict, it was non-negotiable, and he could not or would not identify who was responsible for the decision. The vigilers left after ascertaining they could return at 5:30 to prepare for the 6:00am event.
The take-away from this experience—eight days after the July 28 event—was that security was still in chaotic disarray. Lines of communication between NNSA and on-the-ground personnel were sketchy at best; officers were carrying out orders from unseen and unidentified personnel; permission for a legal, non-confrontational, quiet overnight witness was granted, denied, granted and re-denied. Authority for decision-making was asserted by at least three different persons with three difference messages. It appeared no one quite knew who was in charge or who had the capacity to make or enforce decisions. Ultimately, no rationale for the decision was provided because no legally defensible rationale existed.
Days later the media reported the guard who first confronted the Transform Now Plowshares activists was fired. Reports of the reason for his firing were only partial; he claimed to be a scapegoat, his supervisor claimed he was derelict in his duty. But one thing appears clear. The guard, experienced at several DOE/NNSA sites, conducted a threat assessment and used reasonable and appropriate force in neutralizing any threat and arresting the protesters. He was correct in his assessment, and effective in his action. For this, apparently, he was rewarded with dismissal. There may be other reasons—perhaps he ignored early alarms or slept when he was supposed to be monitoring cameras—but in the absence of any information from NNSA to justify his dismissal, it appears he may be correct. If, in fact, management has made the decision to dismiss this one and only guard in response to the July 28 incursion, it is further evidence of NNSA incompetence.
And finally, nearly five weeks after the July 28 incursion, and three weeks after the security stand-down which was to revitalize the security culture at Y12, comes word that the Wackenhut officer selected to replace the Wackenhut officer who was dismissed as a result of the July 28 incident is caught with cheat sheets in his car—copies of security tests apparently prepared for distribution to security personnel in preparation for a test. The cheat sheets had been sent to Oak Ridge in encrypted form as a precautionary measure; it has not yet been disclosed who de-crypted the documents and made multiple copies for distribution. All that we know is the top Wackenhut official had the papers in his vehicle.
The picture that begins to come into focus is one of appalling management failure by NNSA. In the aftermath of a major security breach, NNSA has instituted a “re-training” plan that has manifested itself in incompetence by security personnel, garbled lines of authority and communication, inexplicable personnel decisions, and finally gross and blatant malfeasance by its top security officer. This is the “new security culture” at Y12? In fact, it is the old management culture of NNSA on display—inadequate oversight of contractors, coupled with a failure to accurately analyze and responsibly address problems, multiplied by an almost sealed system of self-accountability—on display.
Conclusions: NNSA should go
The security breach of July 28 is not the only instance of NNSA mismanagement; it’s not the most expensive, and it’s not the most serious. But it is a critical moment for asking the big questions:
• How does the government receive value added from the NNSA?
• Does the NNSA do more harm than good?
• Is the management culture at NNSA fixable?
Some critics of NNSA’s management suggest removing it from the purview of DOE and making it a stand alone agency. In OREPA’s view, this would serve only to enthrone the fox as sole guardian of the henhouse—a recipe for disaster.
Other critics call for the nuclear enterprise to be shifted to the Department of Defense, institutionalizing the separation of civilian and military nuclear power begun in the days of the Peaceful Atom. But this suggestion will result in the virtual elimination of civilian control of nuclear weapons—a dangerous precedent in the US and an unacceptable message to the rest of the world.
The government receives negative value added from the NNSA; NNSA’s exemption from accountability does a disservice to the nation and to its own mission. The idea of an “autonomous” administration within an agency was questionable from the outset—over the last twelve years it the questions have grown larger and oversight agencies have been asking them louder. It is time for an answer. The management culture at NNSA is not fixable—the National Nuclear Security Administration should be retired as a failed experiment. Fixing the management problems in the nuclear weapons enterprise should return to the Department of Energy. Removing an extraneous level of management should save money, permit clearer lines of accountability, while still providing for the safe and effective administration of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.