Subcommittee Examines Nuclear Weapons Complex Security Challenges

September 12, 2012

Members Express Shock Over Y-12 Security Breach, Call for Improved Oversight and Accountability

The Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations continued its oversight of the Department of Energy’s management of our nation’s most sensitive nuclear facilities with a hearing to examine a range of management and administrative challenges confronting DOE, including the recent security breakdown at the Y-12 National Security Complex. Senior officials from DOE - including Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman and Inspector General Gregory Friedman - and the GAO provided testimony.

The Energy and Commerce Committee has a long-standing bipartisan tradition of conducting oversight of DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration’s management of the nuclear weapons complex. As part of their oversight efforts, committee leaders recently wrote to the Government Accountability Office requesting assistance in evaluating oversight of nuclear weapons complex contractors’ self-assessment programs, expressing concern over the effectiveness of the program and NNSA’s planned workforce reduction.

“This committee knows, perhaps better than any committee in Congress, the history of safety and security failures in the nuclear weapons complex. Over the past two decades, we have worked together in a bipartisan fashion to spotlight these failings – at the weapons labs and at the weapons production sites -- and to urge necessary reforms. Strong safety and security oversight has been a consistent and central theme of this committee's work and the focus of many of our hearings and related investigations,” said full Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI).

While NNSA oversight and management appear to have improved in recent years, events show there continues to be safety, security, and performance challenges in the weapons complex. These security failures were highlighted by the recent security breach at the Y-12 National Security Complex, which is considered to be the “Fort Knox” for highly enriched uranium. During the early morning hours of July 28, 2012, three protestors, including an 82-year-old nun, breached security and defaced the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF) - long reputed to be one of the most secure facilities in the country. Today’s Washington Post reported that DOE investigators had identified security gaps at the complex two years before the break-in.

Members expressed shock and frustration over the security lapse at the Y-12 facility and called for increased federal oversight of our nation’s nuclear weapons facilities. “When an 82-year-old pacifist nun gets to the inner sanctum of our weapons complex, you cannot say job well done,” said Chairman Emeritus Joe Barton (R-TX). “If there is ever a time for more aggressive oversight, this is it.”

“When government vigilance is not sufficiently rigorous, problems occur. A case in point is the recent security failure at the Y-12 National Security Site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, this past July. By all accounts, contractor and site managers’ failures at Y-12 allowed one of the most serious security breakdowns in the history of the weapons complex,” stated Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-FL).

DOE’s Office of the Inspector General recently issued a report on the Y-12 incident, which revealed a series of management failures. Testifying today, DOE IG Gregory Friedman stated, “We found troubling breakdowns in responding to alarms, failures to maintain critical security equipment, over reliance on compensatory measures, misunderstanding of security protocols, poor communications, and weaknesses in contract and resource management. Especially important in light of the purpose of today's hearing, contractor governance and Federal oversight failed to identify and correct early indicators of the breakdowns. These issues directly contributed to an atmosphere in which trespassers could gain access to the protected security area directly adjacent to one of the nation's most critically important and highly secured weapons-related facilities.”

DOE Deputy Secretary Poneman assured the subcommittee that the Department and NNSA is taking aggressive actions to remedy the problems that led to the Y-12 incident and ensure security of our nation’s nuclear facilities. He stated, “The incident at Y-12 was unacceptable, and it served as an important wake-up call for our entire complex. As a result, NNSA will use this event to review the security at all of our NNSA sites. The Department is taking aggressive actions to ensure the reliability of our nuclear security programs, and will continue to do so.”

Recent proposals to reform the approach to oversight at the complex call for reduced federal oversight over independent contractors. Many members and witnesses at today’s hearing expressed concern over these proposed governance changes and believe the Y-12 incident raises further questions about the prospect of diminished federal supervision.

Summarizing GAO’s independent review of NNSA, Mark Gaffigan, Managing Director of GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment Team, stated, “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.”

Inspector General Friedman added, “The question of how to provide the most effective contractor oversight is of vital importance, especially given the degree to which NNSA relies on contractor support to accomplish its national security missions. We support efforts to find better ways to serve the taxpayers' interests. However, based on currently available information, we concluded that a ‘scalpel rather than a cleaver’ approach ought to guide this effort.”

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