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Tough Questions on Weapons Lab Security Breach at House Hearing

Richard M. Jones
Number 135 - November 9, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“Unacceptable and inexcusable” was how National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator Thomas D’Agostino described a July 28 incursion at the Y-12 National Security Complex.  D’Agostino was one of four Department of Energy witnesses, and a witness from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), testifying at a House hearing reviewing the management of the nuclear weapons complex. The ramifications of this incident are likely to be long-lasting, going far beyond security upgrades at NNSA facilities.

When Congress returns to Washington next week the bipartisan outrage expressed at the September 12 hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations is apt to shape any immediate move to increase NNSA’s autonomy from the Department of Energy.   Among the most immediate impacts is likely to be a change in the House position on the NNSA/DOE relationship that were expressed in H.R. 4310, the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2013, that called for a reexamination of this relationship.  The House passed this bill in May.  The Senate version of this bill was approved in committee but has not gone to the floor.

While the broadly-based title of this hearing was “DOE’s Nuclear Weapons Complex: Challenges to Safety, Security, and Taxpayer Stewardship,” the focus quickly narrowed to the incursion into what is called the “Fort Knox” of NNSA’s facilities. Early that July morning three intruders, one an 82-year-old nun, cut through four fences and then defaced several areas.  The intruders gained access to this tightly controlled area because of two inoperable cameras and the failure of the protective force to follow well-established procedures. In response to persistent questions from subcommittee members about these cameras, one of which was reportedly inoperable for six months, it was found that one camera only had to be switched back on, while the other required a repair that was accomplished in 24 hours.

The nun participating in this intrusion was sitting in the hearing room audience.  While one subcommittee member expressed indignation about her actions, on the whole members expressed their gratitude that the incident highlighted security shortcomings.   Former full committee chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) asked the nun to stand so that she could be recognized, saying that while he did not agree with her position he was grateful that inadequate security had been discovered.  Subcommittee member Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) stated that one hundred tons of weapons grade highly enriched uranium is held at Y-12.

Comments from Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-FL), Ranking Member DeGette (D-CO), and the other subcommittee members were consistent, expressing surprise, indignation, and alarm that the incursion happened.  Stearns noted the “long history of bipartisan scrutiny” of the DOE nuclear weapons program and its operations which was evident in the two hour hearing. 

Appearing for DOE were Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman; Administrator D’Agostino; Chief Health, Safety and Security Officer Glenn Podonsky; and Inspector General Gregory Friedman.  All agreed that security procedures must be reinforced, and DOE management oversight strengthened.  More than one witness spoke of the difficulty in ensuring that security problem remedies are sustained. 

An overarching concern is whether changes are needed in DOE’s management of the weapons complex.  Inspector General Friedman told the subcommittee:

“The Office of Inspector General devotes a substantial portion of its time and resources to matters relating to NNSA operations and, by definition, the administration of NNSA's prime contracts.  A routine part of our audit and inspection tradecraft is to conduct root cause analyses of the concerns we have identified.

He continued:

“As it relates to the subject of this hearing, we have developed no evidence, empirical or otherwise, to suggest that what some characterize as overly burdensome oversight on the part of the Department and/or NNSA has had a causal relationship to the problems identified in our reviews. In fact, in many cases, we found that the Department and NNSA have not been as thorough as we felt was necessary in exercising their contract administration responsibilities. The most recent incident at Y-12 makes this point. Despite recent positive reports provided by the contractor and endorsements from Federal site managers, there were actually a number of known security-related problems at Y-12. Given the exposure to risk in this area and the reality of the recent situation, we concluded that more intensive, effective oversight was and is necessary.”

Friedman called for “a ‘scalpel rather than a cleaver’ approach” in making any changes to the relationship. 

Mark Gaffigan, Managing Director of Natural Resources and Environment at GAO reached a similar conclusion:

“With regard to the concerns that DOE’s and NNSA’s oversight of the laboratories’ activities have become excessive and that safety and security requirements are overly prescriptive and burdensome, we agree that excessive oversight and micromanagement of contractors’ activities is not an efficient use of scarce federal resources.

His written testimony continues:

“Nevertheless, in our view, the problems we continue to identify in the nuclear security enterprise are not caused by excessive oversight, but instead result from ineffective oversight. NNSA has made significant progress - including the establishment of an effective headquarters security organization - resolving many of the safety and security weaknesses we have identified, but, as demonstrated by the recent security incident at Y-12, the agency faces challenges in ensuring these improvements are fully implemented and sustained.”

The Obama Administration, in a May 15 Statement of Administration Policy on the House defense authorization bill, raised serious objections to provisions of the bill regarding NNSA.  The Statement explained in a section entitled “Department of Energy (DOE) and Contractor Management Relationships”:

“The Administration strongly objects to elements of . . . [the bill] that change the responsibilities, authorities, and reporting requirements between and among DOE, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), contractors managing and operating the national laboratories, the President, and the Congress. Some of these changes fundamentally alter the relationship between DOE and NNSA by restricting the authority of the Secretary of Energy and transferring responsibilities from DOE to NNSA.”

Another section of the Statement, “Health and Safety at DOE and NNSA” notes:

“The Administration strongly opposes sections 3202, 3115, 3113, and 3151. These provisions severely hamper external, independent oversight by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board; move regulatory authority from independent offices and agencies to the NNSA Administrator; require a weaker standard of contractor governance, management, and oversight; and eliminate DOE's flexibility to determine the appropriate means of assessing the unique risks that it confronts in its facilities. By lowering safety standards for the nuclear weapons complex and reducing requested funding for health, safety, and security, these provisions would weaken protections for workers and the general public.”

Sentiment expressed by both subcommittee members and the witnesses largely concur with the Administration’s position, expressing, at a minimum, the need for a reexamination of changing the current relationship between DOE and NNSA.  Said Chairman Stearns in his opening statement:

“For more than twenty years, GAO has designated DOE contract management and oversight relating to the weapons complex as high risk for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement. We have seen examples of this in multi-billion dollar cost increases and schedule delays in important NNSA construction projects.  In the meantime, directors of the national laboratories and others claim that federal oversight is too burdensome and intrusive, that DOE should back off and let the contractors operate as they see fit. Our friends on the Armed Service Committee have moved legislation through the House that would dramatically limit DOE’s ability to conduct independent internal oversight over its program management and the contractors.

“I recognize that NNSA has not been delivering all that is expected of it. But this committee, given its jurisdictional and long-time policy interests in effective DOE management, has to diagnose the problems for itself, independently. We need to examine the facts and follow the evidence, identify what works and what doesn’t work. And identify a clear path to ensuring safe, secure operations, in interests of taxpayers and national security.”

Full Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) was more explicit in his prepared remarks:

“I believe that effective independent oversight of the department’s critical missions is essential to meeting our national security needs and the legacy of the Cold War weapons programs. Reducing independent oversight would undermine the responsibility our government has to American taxpayers to achieve these critical national security objectives. Without it, success in these areas will be more difficult, not less.

“This committee will continue its oversight of the nuclear weapons enterprise and DOE management, in order to identify the best avenues for reform in the interest of taxpayers, safety, and national security.”

The Ranking Member of the full committee, Henry Waxman (D-CA) criticized the House defense authorization bill, stating:

“We’re lucky that it was just this very nice nun and others who came to express their point of view and gained access to a secure area next to a highly enriched uranium facility. It could have been much worse. We can all view this as a warning call. We have to look closely at our nuclear facilities and make sure that there are strong, effective oversight mechanisms in place to protect them from danger. We cannot remove or repeal the protections already in place.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics