Members of a U.S. House panel were not impressed Sept. 12 by Energy Department officials’ description of steps taken after a nun, gardener and house painter slipped into a nuclear facility to prove that facility was unsafe.
Senior Energy Department leaders attempted to convince the House Energy and Commerce Committee that faulty cameras have been repaired and guards replaced after those three individuals broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.
“When an 82-year-old nun [breaches] the inner sanctum of a nuclear weapons complex, you cannot say, ‘Job well done’,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. That nun “carried a holy Bible. … If she had been a terrorist, who knows what would have happened,” he chided the officials.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., charged the Energy Department officials with “mind boggling incompetence,” noting there is new evidence that security at the Y-12 facility has been in decline for a number of years. To that end, he called security measures at the site an “all-out failure.”
U.S. taxpayers “have not gotten their money’s worth” from steps taken to bolster security at the nuclear weapons facility, Terry said, highlighting a finding that some cameras at the site were inoperable six months before the trio broke in.
“I cannot understand how an 82-year-old nun managed to penetrate the facility,” an incredulous-sounding Terry told a panel of Energy Department officials seated a few feet away.
Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman told the committee the individuals involved in Y-12 at the time of the breach have been fired, reassigned or have retired. Without naming them, Poneman ticked off a list of employees who were reassigned after an internal probe of the security breach.
Such moves are the “first step” toward canceling contracts with the Y-12 facility’s prime contractor, Babcock & Wilcox, and various subcontractors. Babcock & Wilcox has been operating the facility for about four years, with Wackenhut Services running security at Y-12.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill, labeled Babcock as unfit to manage a nuclear weapons complex.
Thomas D’Agostino, National Nuclear Security Administration chief, said of the poor security, “I believe we can fix it.”
“We believe there are more steps to be taken,” D’Agostino said.
Issues such as faulty cameras were noted in some reports about the state of the facility, but those warnings were buried in data-heavy reports. “We can’t have indicators buried in reports,” he said.
Republicans and Democrats called for increased Energy Department and congressional oversight of the nuclear site. Energy officials at several points during the session said intense federal oversight has not improved security.
Gregory Friedman, Energy Department inspector general, drew furrowed brows from several panel members when he told them security personnel became lackadaisical about security breach alerts after wild animals entered the Y-12 grounds.
Terry quipped that the mismanagement of Y-12 security has managed to do something very rare these days in hyper-partisan Washington, “by uniting Republicans and Democrats.”