Main entrance to the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, shown above. (Associated Press photo) Photo inset, below, is of Steve Erhart, manager of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Production Office.
An unusually stern letter from a federal official to the government’s contractor at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant reveals a string of security and safety problems that had not been publicly disclosed and cites the abnormal events as evidence of an “undercurrent of complacency” at the Oak Ridge plant.
The Aug. 11 letter, titled, “Concerns with Y-12 Operational Discipline,” was authored by Steve Erhart, the National Nuclear Security Administration manager who oversees Y-12 and Pantex, its sister nuclear facility in Texas. It was sent to Jim Haynes, the president and CEO of Consolidated Nuclear Security, the Bechtel-led contractor that took over management of both plants on July 1.
The News Sentinel obtained a copy of the three-page letter.
Among the security concerns:
On June 9, a bag containing an enriched uranium metal plate was found in an unauthorized storage area. On July 5, two pellets of highly enriched uranium were found misplaced in an area of 9212, the plant’s high-security production center.
On July 21, production workers identified classified parts that were being prepared for disposal as unclassified waste. In another, separate incident that month, classified and unclassified wastes were co-mingled, and investigators found that it was not an isolated situation — resulting in a suspension of all off-site waste shipments.
A series of security mess-ups, such as a tamper-indicating seal on a secured door that was broken during a protective force exercise and found later — revealing other issues as well. Other examples included a violation of the “two-person rule” (requiring at least two authorized personnel be present during critical operations or access to weapons-making materials); failure to secure an area and closing a security portal without setting the alarm system; and an unauthorized personal weapon inside the high-security Protected Area.
Erhart also outlined a number of Y-12 safety concerns, including a recent problem with casting enriched uranium alloys that led to a temporary shutdown of casting operations. He also cited a glove fire in the E-Wing of the 9212 complex, a hydrogen fluoride leak and other issues.
“These abnormal events can be attributed to ineffective discipline of operations, poor housekeeping, inadequate work procedures, failure to adhere to procedures, worker complacency, inadequate communications, etc.,” Erhart wrote.
“The frequency and severity of events demonstrate a failure to integrate the full spectrum of functional requirements, such as safeguards and security, conduct of operations, fire protection and nuclear and worker safety into day-to-day work activities,” he said in the letter to CNS.
Erhart ordered the Y-12 contractor to conduct a broad evaluation of the reasons for so many abnormal events and to go beyond the “typical statistics” to identify whether there are “systemic problems and underlying causes” that need to be fixed. CNS is to provide a report to the National Nuclear Security Administration within 60 days from the date of the letter, which would be Oct. 10. The report is to include how the contractor plans to address the situation.
He said the NNSA recognized that some of the conditions predated CNS’ arrival as contractor, but he said it’s now “our collective responsibility” to make sure operations at Y-12 — and at Pantex — are conducted safely and securely.
“CNS should always view plant … performance with a measure of ‘chronic unease’ while maintaining operational awareness for situations where work-as-performed deviates from work-as-planned,” he said.
Erhart told Haynes that the contractor has “the unprecedented opportunity” to have a positive influence on the culture at the two national security facilities. As CNS moves forward as the contractor at Y-12 and Pantex, it is vital that all employees understand the expectations for safety, security and quality and make sure it’s not just maintained, but improved, he said.
In his letter, Erhart noted the spate of abnormal events had occurred since July 2013, when a machine gun was accidentally discharge inside a hardened security vehicle. However, Y-12 security has been under extreme scrutiny for more than two years, dating back to the July 28, 2012 break-in by an 82-year-old nun and two other protesters — who cut through four security fences and defaced the exterior of the plant’s storehouse for bomb-grade uranium.
Congressional hearings were held following that event, and the NNSA ordered a number of reviews, reorganizations and projects to improve security at Y-12 and other facilities in the nuclear weapons complex.
This latest report by the federal manager overseeing two key production facilities would seem to indicate that those earlier security corrections were not fully effective.
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