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How an 82-year-old Nun Exposed Security Lapses at Nuclear Facilities

Will the break in at the "Fort Knox of Uranium" serve as a wake-up call to regulators and the contractors they employ?

| Fri Sep. 14, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

A tall, bright white, windowless blockhouse longer than a football field with a guard tower on each corner, the building was designed to be the most secure location for weapons-grade uranium (of the type that Iran is trying to create) harvested not only from U.S. warheads but from foreign governments that Washington does not trust to guard it well enough themselves.

Uranium is used in the U.S. arsenal to fuel the spark plugs of modern thermonuclear bombs and warheads, greatly boosting their explosive force, but it can also be used without difficulty to create a so-called "dirty bomb" capable of wreaking havoc simply by spreading dangerous radioactivity over a populated area. Inside the HEUMF, which the activists were able to deface, and pit with hammers—but not breach—the harvested material is stored in thousands of barrels and small casks placed on racks, in the open, according to an NNSA video tour of the inside.

Given the obvious risks, the HEUMF's designers initially envisioned it buried underneath a large earth berm, a relatively cheap approach to nuclear security that has been zealously embraced by the nuclear mandarins in Tehran. But at the last moment before construction started, the NNSA reversed course and opted instead to build its aboveground "prison," based on advice that doing so would be quicker and cheaper to build and easier to defend.

That advice came from Babcock & Wilcox, which had already secured the guard force contract, according to a 2004 DOE report. The cost savings claim was discredited at the time by security experts from Sandia National Laboratories and by Friedman's Inspector General office; he concluded that constructing the aboveground version would cost an extra $25 million, and staffing it with a guardforce four times larger would cost taxpayers an extra $177 million over its lifespan. It would also need extra cooling.

It took just 15 minutes or so to cut through four fences and reach the perimeter.

NNSA allowed Babcock & Wilcox "to continue redesigning the facility even when initial attempts to reduce the cost and improve the security of the facility failed," Friedman complained. Michael C. Kane, then an NNSA executive and now a top Energy Department official, told him in a letter, however, that NNSA and its local site managers were convinced an aboveground "Defense-in-Depth security design" was the best course.

Rice, the nun who is now awaiting trial for trespassing, describes a design that is more shallow than deep, however. She said in a telephone interview from a Catholic retreat in Washington DC that while it took a few hours to approach the site in darkness—skirting a stream, walking through tall grass, climbing a hill or two, ducking whenever a guard vehicle drove by—it took just 15 minutes or so to cut through four fences and reach the perimeter of the HEUMF.

Once there, she and two other peace activists had plenty of time to string a red "caution" tape (purchased at TrueValue hardware) around some pillars beneath one of the watchtowers, and light a few candles before the first guard showed up. They also had time to pour the blood—"very reverently," she said—and knick the concrete in what she called a "symbolic cracking of the cornerstone." The first guard said nothing directly, but told a supervisor that peace activists were on the scene and called for backup (he has since been fired, and filed a claim alleging scapegoating).

The second guard to arrive, several minutes later, was the first to draw a gun on the trio, and soon a string of eight guard vehicles stretched behind the first. Some of them conversed via cellphone, instead of using an encrypted radio system, yet another violation of the rules.

"We never expected to get that far," Rice said. "We would have been happy to get to the first fence; we were ready to do that much" and leave some banners there, Rice said. The guards cuffed her hands and ankles and made her sit for hours on the ground but were "gentlemen," she said. When the security chief finally arrived, she added, his first question was, "Are there any others besides you?"

Over the years, NNSA has steadily said less and less to Babcock & Wilcox about how to do its work. It eliminated its regional office in 2002 and turned oversight over to an office located on-site. The philosophy it has adopted recently—with the strong support of lawmakers on Capitol Hill—is called the Contractor Assurance System. It essentially means that the government cannot tell the company how to operate or guard the site; it can only hold the company responsible when it fails to accomplish its mission.

That system meant that the federal employees assigned to oversee the guard force "could take no action to prompt the contractor to complete needed repairs" to cameras or other defective equipment, according to Friedman's August report. It's an approach that allows the site operator to make its own calculation that repairs can be deferred because they cost more than temporary work-arounds.

The result, Friedman wrote, is that senior NNSA officials had little insight into which cameras were not functioning, how backlogged key maintenance was, or how ill-prepared the guard force was. They told him that "prior to the recent incident, the site was considered to be one of the most innovative and higher performing sites in the complex."

On matters of nuclear security, it's always better to be proved wrong by an 82-year old nun than by a squad of terrorists.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, independent investigative news outlet.

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