Tough Questions on Weapons Lab Security Breach at House Hearing

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Publication date: 
9 November 2012
Number: 
135

“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.”