[Investigative journalist Tom Nugent is the author of Death at Buffalo Creek (W.W. Norton), a book about the environmental impact of coal mining. Donald R. Soeken, LCSW-C, Ph.D., is the founder of Whistleblower Support Fund and a licensed clinical social worker who has spent more than three decades counseling federal whistle-blowers and has been profiled in NY Times, Parade, etc.]
Oak Ridge Nuclear Weapons Security Breach Showed How
U.S. System for Protecting Federal Whistleblowers Is Broken
Inquiry by Department of Energy Inspector General
Fails to Address the "Culture of Fear" at Y-12 Facility
By Tom Nugent and Donald R. Soeken, Ph.D.
Now that President Barack Obama has been convincingly reelected, he can do the nation a huge service by quickly ordering his White House legal counsel to review a potential national security threat that could produce a catastrophe on the scale of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
That potentially devastating threat was nakedly exposed last July 28, when three senior citizens armed only with Bibles and bolt-cutters successfully invaded the country's major storage facility for enriched uranium.
Led by an 82-year-old, white-haired nun, the trio of elderly peace activists (average age: 67) managed to cut their way through three high-tech security fences . . . and then splashed blood and painted antiwar slogans at the $500 million Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF), supposedly the most heavily guarded nuclear weapons materials depot in the world.
An enormous embarrassment to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) -- which has overall responsibility for security at the Oak Ridge (Tenn.) Nuclear Reservation -- the debacle at the "Y-12" storage facility led to numerous firings and blistering criticism aimed at the private contractor which had been directing day to day security operations for DOE.
Predictably enough, the DOE Inspector General (IG), Gregory H. Friedman, quickly launched a wide-ranging investigation into the massive security breach. After several weeks of analyzing the breakdown in detail, the IG issued a report that blamed the incident on "multiple system failures on several levels" ( http://energy.gov/ig/downloads/inquiry-security-breach-national-nuclear-security-administrations-y-12-national ).
According to the IG, the security failures were nothing less than astonishing. His report revealed, for example, that high-tech cameras attached to the three slashed fences had been "out of service" for months at a time. And at least one critically important camera hadn't even been turned on during the night on which the three elderly invaders successfully infiltrated the facility and easily made their way toward nuclear materials that could kill millions if used as weapons.
Summarizing its findings, the IG reported that "Contract governance and Federal oversight failed to identify and correct early indicators of . . . multiple system breakdowns. When combined, these issues directly contributed to an atmosphere in which the 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."
Along with the DOE Inspector General, several congressional committees began investigating the security meltdown within a few days of its occurrence. These inquiries also produced initial findings that vitally important cameras had been broken or turned off during the incident, and that security personnel had failed to detect the invasion or prevent the antiwar seniors from wandering around the heart of the complex at will for a full hour before they were finally apprehended.
As expected, both the IG's report and the congressional inquiries were full of sharply worded language that deplored the stunning lapse in security at Y-12. They also called for rapid, wide-ranging steps that could be taken to repair the breakdowns and prevent them from happening again.
But neither the IG's report nor the congressional findings even mentioned a key aspect of the hugely embarrassing event at Oak Ridge -- the fact that although dozens (hundreds?) of federal and contract employees had to know about the broken cameras and other security lapses that were taking place during the months leading up to the invasion, no one seems to have reported them to superiors inside or outside DOE.