A good security system would seem essential for the federal repository holding virtually all of the nation’s highly-enriched uranium, a key ingredient of nuclear weapons, just outside Knoxville, Tennessee.
But the hi-tech system installed at a cost of roughly $50 million over the past decade at the Energy Department’s Y-12 complex is still riddled with flaws that impede its operation, according to a newly released report by the department’s top auditor. Moreover, no one knows how much the government will have to spend to fix it or when that task might be accomplished, the report said.
Flaws in the site’s security system first came into national view in July 2012, when an 82-year-old nun and two other anti-nuclear activists cut through fences and walked through a field of motion detectors to deface the exterior of Y-12’s Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, which holds enough explosives to make 10,000 nuclear bombs.
Subsequent investigations concluded that those monitoring the few critical sensors that were operating that day had been schooled to ignore them by persistently false alarms, including many triggered by wildlife.
But not much has changed since that break-in, according to the report by Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman, even though the department spent more than a million dollars in 2012 to get a consultant’s advice about how to make the system work better, and then millions more completing the installation of hi-tech sensors in 2013.
His report said the so-called Argus security system, which was developed by DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and named optimistically after the fabled 100-eyed monster of Greek mythology, “did not fully meet the site’s security needs” and was not installed the way it was designed to be used.
It’s still prone to frequent false alarms and falls short of the Energy Department’s requirements, he added.
Friedman blamed the flaws on inadequate spending and poor management. In particular, those installing the system tried to do so on the cheap. Instead of undertaking a top-to-bottom modernization, they tried to integrate new equipment with older alarm wiring and cabinets. Those operating it said this effort was not successful, and that it caused false alarms to jump by 25 percent.
As a result, Friedman wrote, the operators were “not able to efficiently perform their duties.” In fact, a 27-month study of alarm data that concluded in July 2014 showed that false alarms accounted for more than 35 percent of all alerts.
Budget records suggest that the task of safeguarding nuclear weapons has not been as high a priority at the Energy Department as developing them. The security program that supports the Argus project and others like it across the nation’s nuclear sites received $79.8 million for the current fiscal year, and for 2016 the Energy Department has asked Congress for 5.8 percent less, $75.2 million. Meanwhile, spending on weapons programs stands at $8.1 billion and the Energy Department’s request to Congress for next year seeks 10.5 percent growth to $8.8 billion.
Argus’s troubles are not unique to Y-12. A report by the inspector general in May said similar problems erupted at the Energy Department’s Nevada National Security Site when Argus was installed there. “We determined that the Argus project experienced schedule delays and cost increases as a result of inadequate project management and funding issues,” Friedman wrote.