Activists, including nun, pull off 'shocking' security breach at nuclear weapons plant
Updated (Tues., Aug. 7, 2012): Energy Secretary Steven Chu called the security breach at the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility "unacceptable and deeply troubling." In response to the breach, the National Nuclear Security Administration has suspended the security officers involved in the breach, as well as three members of the leadership team at WSI Oak Ridge, the G4S Government Solutions subsidiary that provides security at the Y-12 site, according to Chu's statement. In addition, all employees at the site are undergoing additional security training and the NNSA is bringing in General Rodney Johnson, deputy manager of NNSA's Pantex site to Y-12 to help strengthen security at the site. "The department has no tolerance for security breaches at any of our sites, and I am committed to ensuring that those responsible will be held accountable," Chu said.
OAK RIDGE, Tenn.—In what one expert is calling the most significant security breach of a U.S. nuclear weapons facility in the country's history, three peace activists, including an 82-year-old nun, were able to cut through several perimeter fences and reach a building containing highly enriched uranium before being stopped by security forces.
Joshua McConaha, a spokesperson for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), confirmed for Security Director News that the activists were able to cut through four perimeter fences—not three as other news outlets have previously reported—to access the facility grounds and reach the outer wall of the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge.
When security forces reached the trio, they had already hung banners and splashed what they claimed to be human blood on the wall, and then offered to break bread with the security personnel, according to news reports. "I can confirm that they were detected and apprehended, but I can’t get into any details about the security response," McConaha told SDN. "They did reach the wall, though the wall is not far from the fence line."
McConaha said there was no chance the activists could have gained access to the facility, which is said to contain as much as 400 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium and is the country's only warehouse for the bomb-making material.
But Peter Stockton, a nuclear security expert who works for the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Project On Government Oversight, isn't so sure. He said the significance of this security breach cannot be overstated.
"This is just shocking, every bit of it," Stockton told SDN. "Everybody I talk to in Washington who is in this field is just shocked, just cannot believe it."
Stockton continued: "They're supposed to be able to repel approximately a dozen well-trained terrorists, heavily-armed with inside knowledge ... and they had a little trouble with a nun," he said. "It's a very, very significant thing, let me tell you. If it had been a real attack by trained terrorists, it would have been a cakewalk to get into the building. You don't even have to use the door, you just blow a hole in the side of the building and you get in."
Given the ease of creating an improvised nuclear explosion, Stockton said terrorists wouldn't need an exit plan once they got in and accessed the material.
There are "quasi guard towers" on each corner of the facility, Stockton said. "Now what the hell these guys were doing is beyond me, while these guys are down there having a good time eating bread and reading the Bible," he said.
Though not all the details about the breach are known, it's clear that one of the three legs that any security program stands on—detection, delay and response—must have failed, Jeff Slotnick, president of the security consulting firm Setracon Inc. and chairman of ASIS International's Physical Security Council, told SDN. "I hate to pass judgement without knowing all the details, but at first glance it looks like the people side of the system got a bit complacent in their duties," Slotnick said. "Technology is only as good as the people watching it."
The contractor that provides the people tasked with securing the Y-12 facility is WSI Oak Ridge, a division of G4S Government Solutions (formerly Wackenhut Services Inc.).
Stockton said this is not the first time Wackenhut, which was acquired by G4S in 2002, has been under scrutiny for its contracts guarding nuclear facilities. In 2007, security guards at a Pennsylvania plant were caught napping on the job, costing G4S that contract.
McConaha said the NNSA is "taking this very seriously" and that "there will be full accountability."
The Y-12 facility was put on lock-down and has not been reopened since the incident, according to McConaha. "We acted immediately to determine precisely what happened and how, and we have taken steps to improve security at the site," he said. "There are multiple ongoing investigations to determine root causes and contributing factors, and we’re looking hard at where security was inadequate and how we’re going to improve."
Stockton believes G4S should be replaced. He also believes this event will be the "death knell" of the House Armed Services Committee's idea of reducing oversight of the weapons facilities. "Now they're saying just get off the back of these contractors and they'll do great things," Stockton said. "Well, they didn't do such great things for us."
Before the breach occured, WSI Oak Ridge in late July announced it would reduce its security force at the Oak Ridge facility by as many as 51 jobs, including about 34 security officer positions at Y-12, due to a comprehensive security assessment by the NNSA, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. McConaha said the decision to cut jobs is not being reconsidered at this time. "The size of the protective force is determined through a comprehensive process that considers a number of factors, which have not changed since the decision to reduce the size of the protective forces was made. While the announcement was made recently, the affected employees have not left the payroll."