In Screw Ups/Dollar, NNSA bests all comers.
With budget dollars tight, you might think a government agency would be proud to be recognized for getting the most out of your tax dollars.
Take, for instance, the National Nuclear Security Administration, a usually below-the-radar agency housed in the Department of Energy with the sole mission of taking care of nuclear weapons. It doesn’t take much research to reveal what distinguishes the NNSA from other federal agencies—that’s right. The NNSA is far and away the leader, in screw ups per dollar invested, among all federal agencies.
To be fair, the NNSA doesn’t do this all by itself. It relies on contractors to do much of the hands-on messing up. But it’s the NNSA’s job to supervise those contractors, so even though the bucks may not stop with the NNSA, the buck does. Looking at the big picture, one can’t help but admire the almost uninterrupted display of managerial ineptitude.
In just a second, we’ll take a quick look at NNSA’s year in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. But it’s important to note that the errors, SNAFUs, mistakes and lapses noted here are only representative of NNSA’s performance—they have huge boondoggles at other places, too—the MOX plant at Savannah River and NIF at Livermore, projects way behind schedule and equally way over budget, and significant security lapses at Los Alamos. And that’s just what is reported—the NNSA is also one of the least transparent of all federal agencies.
January: This screw up started in 2011 when the new, highly touted microwave technology was finally ready, after years of development and testing, to be installed in a production line at the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oak Ridge. This was the full-scale proof of the technology—only it didn’t work. In January, a review was completed and it was determined the core technology needed to be sent back to the manufacturer.
February: As part of the push for additional funding for a new bomb plant (the Uranium Processing Facility) to replace aging weapons production facilities in Oak Ridge, Congressman Mike Turner released photos from inside the current facility (Building 9212) revealing the deterioration of the older building. Sadly for NNSA, the photos were less than compelling—they showed rusting metal boxes and piping, along with outdated electrical service panels. A seat-of-the pants analysis by critics showed, even allowing for standard contractor pricing, the old equipment could be replaced for a fraction of the $7.5 billion pricetag of the replacement UPF. Congress gave them the extra construction money anyway—it’s always good to have connections.
Also in February, NNSA revealed that Y12 workers were needlessly exposed to excess contamination hazards because the company hired to clean respirators was returning dirty respirators to Y12 for re-use. When they checked the inventory, hundreds of respirators were discovered to be contaminated.
April opened with NNSA receiving a letter from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The letter, accompanied by a brief report, declared the NNSA had failed to integrate safety into the design of the $7.5 billion UPF. The report suggested an unusual level of frustration on the part of the oversight board—some of the issues it detailed were first identified in 2007 and remained, five years later, unresolved. The DNFSB did not mince words. It noted that decisions to downgrade criticality safety standards would mean the new facility would be less safe than the old facility, and that workers and the public would not be adequately protected.
In May, a group called Global Zero weighed in on the plans for the $7.5 billion UPF in a report, authored by retired Marine General James Cartright, former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the US Armed Forces. The report says plans for UPF and other proposed production facilities could be restructured and down-sized in light of future US security requirements. This common-sense recommendation echoes what the NNSA heard and ignored consistently at public hearings about the UPF. Undaunted, Congress doubles the budget for the UPF to “accelerate construction.”
May also saw a suspension of lock out/tag out operations at Y12 in response to safety concerns. While lock out/tag out operations were down, a review showed the concerns had been identified five years earlier. The procedures are necessary to protect workers from exposure and to guard against the “release of hazardous energy,” according to press accounts of Safety Board concerns.
Then, in July, things started to really, really go wrong for NNSA in Oak Ridge. In the wee hours of the morning on July 28 three peace activists engaged in the Transform Now Plowshares action—they cut the perimeter fence at Y12, climbed the ridge, cut through two more fences, spray painted “Disarm Transform” and “Peace Not War” and poured blood on the low wall, crossed the high-security PIDAS (Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment System), cut through the innermost security fence, and ceremonially poured blood and hammered on the walls of the nation’s warehouse for weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. With spray paint, they wrote “Plowshares Please, Isaiah” and “Woe to an Empire of Blood” and “The Fruit of Justice is Peace.” They prayed and read a statement together. Finally, they were interrupted by security and were arrested. The security guard, who accurately assessed the level of risk presented by the cooperative nonviolent protesters, did not draw his gun on them—for which he was fired. The demonstration set off a chain of events—a sixteen day shut-down of all production operations at Y12 for security retraining, at the end of which security personnel were to be tested, which brings us to:
August, when retrained security personnel were caught “preparing” for their upcoming test in an unauthorized manner. Their exam, sent to Oak Ridge in an encrypted file, was reproduced, and multiple copies were found on the front seat of a supervisor’s vehicle, apparently being distributed to the workers before the test. The security folks denied any wrongdoing, but a review by the Inspector General called it cheating, which it was. The NNSA, stepping in to exercise its supervisory responsibilities, issued a “show cause” letter to its contractors, Wackenhut Security and B&W Y12, requiring them to show why their contracts should not be revoked immediately.
In September, Congressional hearings were held to explore the security breach and to give officials a chance to assure Congress that all necessary heads had rolled and corrective actions were implemented and all was well. B&W Y12 took over security operations and Wackenhut was sent packing (though actually, most personnel simply rolled over onto the B&W payroll). Little notice was paid to Y12’s continuing attempt to duck state water permit requirements—the general complaint of Y12 is that it can only obey one law at a time, and it chooses to obey CERCLA (a law governing cleanup) rather than the state’s water permit requirements.
Things might have taken a turn for the better, except for that pesky DNFSB which convened a public meeting in Knoxville on October 2 to get an update on the progress with the design of the UPF. It was there NNSA and B&W Y12 revealed the “space/fit issue.” Bottom line: after five years of design work on the UPF, and more than half a billion dollars spent, along with public declarations that the design was approaching the critical 90% completion milestone, the designers had discovered a “space/fit issue.” The building would not be big enough to accommodate all the equipment it would need to fulfill its mission. In testimony to the Safety Board, NNSA and B&W Y12 officials were unable to offer any explanation for the disaster but promised an answer in twenty-one days. One of the reasons for the space/fit issue was the need to thicken walls and take other steps to address safety concerns the DNFSB had identified years earlier—which NNSA had ignored. So, instead of beginning construction in September 2012, as NNSA had indicated was likely as late as July, construction is now delayed a year or more while the space/fit issue is resolved.
Dealing with the space/fit issues apparently captured most of the time and resources of NNSA and its contractor, though we didn’t realize how much until December when the lawyers for the Transform Now Plowshares defendants were taken to the “scene of the crime” in preparation for the trial. They were shown the fence where the activists had entered, marked with three red ribbons hanging from carabiners—which the defendants recognized as NOT the place they entered. It was a simple enough mistake, but when activists, and then the media, went up to view the fence, they discovered the actual point of entry—a person-sized hole in the perimeter fence—was still there, undiscovered and unrepaired four an a half months after it was cut and three months after multiple assurances were given to Congress that the TNP “wake up call” had resulted in a new commitment to security details.
December also saw the release of a highly critical review of the safety culture at Y12 by the Department of Energy’s Office of Health, Safety and Security.
In addition to these specific uh-oh moments, throughout the year NNSA was attempting to restructure the management of its facilities at Y12 and Pantex, the weapons assembly facility in Amarillo, Texas, by combining the two operations contracts into one and hiring a contractor to cover both facilities. Proposals for the contract were due in March, 2012, and the replacement of the current contractor (or renewal of its contract) was scheduled for September. Since then, existing contracts have been extended twice and, by January 2013, no contract decision has been reached.
What does the new year hold? It is impossible to predict—but two things you could safely bet on if you were the kind of person to bet: 1] The NNSA will keep screwing up; it’s part of their culture; and 2] Congress will keep rewarding them with more and more money.
For a detailed account of all goings on at Y12, we recommend Frank Munger’s excellent blog, the Atomic City Underground.