Before dawn on July 28, three activists, including an 82-year-old woman, entered the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (Y-12) at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  They were able to access the plant’s highest-security areas.

There are conflicting accounts of how long they were inside the security perimeter before being arrested by the security guards and whether the intrusion was properly detected by the Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment System (PIDAS).  The Y-12 Complex stores the nation’s reserve of highly enriched uranium (HEU), a main ingredient of nuclear weapons and power source for many Navy ships.

Security is provided by contractors WSI Oak Ridge and  B&W Y-12 overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration.  The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was created after 9/11 to oversee security at nuclear facilities.  There is discussion about making  the NNSA independent of the Department of Energy.

One of the intruders has made a statement relating her version of events.   They infiltrated the facility from a nearby ridge.  They saw and avoided several white security vehicles.  After cutting the first fence, they hid in tall grass while a patrol vehicle passed before advancing and breaching the two additional fences.

Photo courtesy of Knox News

Upon gaining access to the high-security Protected Area, they took their time.  “We did it thoughtfully minded. We placed everything on the ground that we needed.”  They carried out several planned actions and were able to read their entire statement before other guards arrived and handcuffed them.  They were standing about 20 feet from a guard turret on the building.

Former security guard Kirk Garland was the first on scene at the intrusion.   “I just think it’s ridiculous that I was the one that was fired,” he said.  He claimed he did not draw his gun or take any other actions because they were pacifist protesters and they obeyed his commands.  He said he was the only guard at the scene for about four minutes.  “They got to where they shouldn’t have been, but that’s not my fault” he said.

US restructures defense plutonium infrastructure

Read Next: US restructures defense plutonium infrastructure

The security breach has led to a temporary suspension of activities where “all special nuclear materials will be moved to vault-type facilities on site, all nuclear operations will be halted, and contractor security personnel will undergo training and refresher instruction.”

Other effects were a number of staff changes and the issuance of a show cause notice that gives B&W Y-12, 30 days to explain why its contract should not be terminated.  The NNSA show cause letter identified numerous problems:

  • Non-functioning surveillance cameras, including the camera watching in the fence zone that was penetrated by the protesters.
  • Despite numerous intrusion alarms, the guards failed to react as intruders cut through three security fences
  • Response by a vehicle patrol was slow
  • When the guards did arrive, they did not respond effectively  to the intruders
  • Contractors responsible for security failed to coordinate effectively

On July 23rd. before the incident, Wackenhut Services Incorporated announced plans to eliminate up to 34 security police and three staff positions at Y-12 National Security Complex.  A federal spokesman said this plan has been canceled.

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) claims that the Department of Energy’s Office of Independent Oversight Program (IO) will  review security at the site and will conduct a performance test of the guard force, i.e. force-on-force exercise.  Concerned with the quality of testing, POGO advocates use of  the Department of Defense  Grizzly Hitch program as adversaries.   According to POGO, Grizzly Hitch  is a unit of U.S. Army Special Forces that have been used in the past as a “RED CELL”  to test nuclear guard forces.

POGO has also claimed that in the next six months, IO teams will conduct similar security tests at each of the CAT 1 sites—sites with bomb-grade uranium and plutonium: Savannah River, Oak Ridge National Lab, Idaho National Lab, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Pantex.

The timing of the intrusion is highly suspect.  There are millions in government nuclear security contracts up for bid.  The Y-12 security contract is consolidating with the contract for the Pantex nuclear weapons plant in Amarillo, Texas. Investigators are looking at allegations that inside information was provided to the protestors to embarrass the contractors and the NNSA during ongoing negotiations.

Three bidders are in competition for the Y-12/Pantex contract, but NNSA is now asking for modified proposals to include protective force plans.  The performance of managing contractor B&W Y-12 and security contractor WSI Oak Ridge during the intrusion convinced NNSA that a single contractor offers a better chain of command responding to attacks.

The future of the proposed Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Oak Ridge is now in question.  Site preparation for UPF is scheduled to begin later this year at Y-12.  The multi-billion-dollar production center will replace the plant’s old uranium facilities which date  to the Manhattan Project.  This new processing facility is the heart of America’s nuclear weapons modernization program.  The plant has vital  roles in weapons-making, dismantlement and nonproliferation.

DOE spokesman Damien LaVera issued a statement: “Secretary Chu has made clear that the security of our nation’s nuclear material is the department’s most important responsibility, and he has no tolerance for federal or contractor personnel who cannot or will not do their jobs…  the recent incident at Y-12 was a completely unacceptable breach of security and an important wake-up call for our entire complex. The severity of the failure of leadership at Y-12 demands swift, strong, and decisive action by the department.”