- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2014

From the 2004 loss of security keys at the Los Alamos nuclear research lab to a Catholic nun’s 2012 break-in at a similarly sensitive facility in Tennessee, the Energy Department’s handling of nuclear materials has been plagued by security lapses. And there is little evidence that any lasting improvements are being made.

For at least the third time in a decade, the investigative arm of Congress this week faulted managers inside the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration for failing to take meaningful action to address long-standing safety issues.

In fact, Government Accountability Office investigators concluded that some of the actions NNSA managers took to cut costs have worsened some security vulnerabilities.

The woeful record and repeated warnings have exasperated the country’s leading voices on nuclear safety, such as Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and Clinton administration energy secretary who presided over the department when Congress created the NNSA 14 years ago.

“I think this should be abolished, but it probably won’t be because it challenges the turf of some members of Congress,” Mr. Richardson said an interview Wednesday with The Washington Times. “I fought very strongly against it.”

The Energy Department has been conducting nuclear research for decades, but Congress consolidated the nuclear security responsibilities under the NNSA in 2000. Since then, the agency has become a poster child for bureaucratic bungling and clumsy security.

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Congressional testimony reviewed by The Times included blunt assessments calling the NNSA security practices inadequate and wasteful.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Sandra Finan, who investigated the NNSA in 2012, said the agency had a “check-the-box” mentality.

The Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear watchdog, argues that the NNSA funnels money to contractors with shaky track records in fixing problems.

“The NNSA was created to give greater autonomy to the weapons complex and create less oversight,” said Greg Mello, executive director of the study group.

Energy Department officials were not available Wednesday to comment on the security concerns, a spokesman said.

The NNSA deferred comment and referred a reporter instead to the agency’s comments in the recent GAO report agreeing that more action needs to be taken.

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“NNSA agrees with GAO’s recommendation and has already initiated an effort to develop a security roadmap for NNSA which will clearly delineate the NNSA security vision and the path forward for the security program. The estimated completion date for this effort is December 31, 2014,” the agency wrote.

As far back as 2003, the GAO suggested that the NNSA develop a plan to create a clearer chain of command within a management that is viewed as too deferential to contractors and slow to empower its employers to report concerns. Outside watchdogs have made similar pleas.

“Our stance has always been that it would be possible to have a clearer policy debate if we had decent management,” Mr. Mello said.

The debate so far appears to have fallen on deaf ears, according to the author of the latest congressional oversight report.

David Trimble, the GAO director of natural resources, said the NNSA still lacks a consistent management vision, which hinders day-to-day oversight. “This has long been the recommendation of [the NNSA’s] own task force,” Mr. Trimble said.

The most recent GAO report said the NNSA’s oversight is largely the same as it was in 2012 when the agency was stung by a massive security breach that allowed protesters to penetrate the Y-12 nuclear research facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

To the casual observer, a nuclear facility with weapons-grade uranium looks like a maximum-security prison, complete with armed guards and barbed wire. But the problem lies with the mindset and culture of the people who work within, as contractors wanting more freedom clash with regulators seeking tighter safety, analysts said.

This struggle has been happening for decades within the nuclear security community, even before the NNSA was formed, Mr. Richardson said. As energy secretary, he implemented mandatory background checks for scientists in weapons labs, and “the scientists hated that.”

The July 28, 2012, incident at Y-12 brought the struggle to a head.

Y-12 was a supposedly impassable fortress built in the post-Sept. 11 security atmosphere. During the break-in, Sister Megan Rice, 82, and two other activists, ages 57 and 63, reached an internal building containing enriched uranium. They spray-painted on the building’s outer wall and splashed human blood on the facility before a lone guard found them.

NNSA officials vowed sweeping changes after the highly publicized embarrassment, but the GAO found that little has happened in the two years since.

“According to NNSA officials and Y-12 contractor personnel, some reductions in the site’s protective forces had occurred before the July 2012 security breach, and additional reductions were being planned,” the GAO reported Monday.

Personnel were eliminated as part of the NNSA’s effort at cost savings.

Mr. Trimble said the push from contractors is not only about control, but also about money — whether nuclear funding is appropriated to “missions” such as weapons and research, or to security.

“There’s not a dichotomy between security and mission,” Mr. Trimble said. “Security is integral to missions, and what this amounts to is a cultural problem.”

The political tug of war, Mr. Richardson said, is what prompted the creation of the NNSA. Labs lobbied Congress for an ambiguous, semi-autonomous agency, an extra layer of removal from federal regulators.

Mr. Richardson said he supports moving nuclear facilities’ security back under the purview of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

“I don’t think [tensions] will ever go away, but at least you don’t have another layer of bureaucracy,” he said.

Regulation of the NNSA is haphazard. Congress has investigated the NNSA and held hearings multiple times since the 2012 incident. The report Monday was requested by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Despite a decade of repeated alarms, Congress seems to have little planned — not even a hearing — to force action in the short term.

“The committee is continuing its oversight of both safety and security at DOE and throughout its nuclear enterprise, some of this oversight may result in future committee hearings, but none are currently scheduled,” an aide from the committee said.

• Chloe Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@washingtontimes.com.

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