18 months after security breach, former Y-12 nuclear weapons plant boss tells his story
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As a result of the July 28, 2012, break-in at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, some prized possessions were lost.
Y-12 lost its reputation as the government’s impenetrable fortress in Oak Ridge, and three protesters, who were convicted of sabotage and destruction of federal property, lost their freedom.
Darrel Kohlhorst lost his job.
In a sit-down interview at last week’s Nuclear Deterrence Summit outside Washington, D.C., the former Y-12 boss talked with the News Sentinel about the events of 18 months ago and, for the first time, how it all came apart.
“Knowing the security that we have at Y-12 and how good it was, the fact that there could have been any penetration was really a big surprise,” he said. “I mean, that was a real shocker.”
Three anti-nuclear activists, including an 82-year-old nun, cut through a perimeter fence in the dark of night, scaled a heavily wooded ridge and entered the plant from the north side. They cut through three more security fences, loaded with sensors and cameras associated with the plant’s supposedly top-notch detection system, and walked directly to the storage facility for bomb-grade uranium, which they splashed with human blood and decorated with crime-scene tape and spray-painted messages.
After the fact, the critical reviews of Y-12 security were scathing.
Investigators with the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General found weaknesses or failures everywhere they looked, including “troubling displays of ineptitude” in responding to security alarms. Then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the Y-12 break-in was an “unacceptable and deeply troubling breach.” At a congressional hearing on the incident, U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Nebraska, called it an “unprecedented breakdown” and “all-out failure,” and U.S. Rep Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, thanked Sister
Megan Rice — one of the Plowshares protesters who was in attendance — for “bringing out the inadequacies of our security system.”
Kohlhorst acknowledged there were “several failures” at Y-12 that allowed such an intrusion to take place.
“I think that the plant has learned a lot from that situation and what happened ... and made a lot of really significant changes,” he said, “and some very good changes.”
But he didn’t necessarily agree with all of the reports on Y-12 security.
“Some of them I looked at and, to me, it’s always Monday night quarterbacking,” he said. “I think it’s pretty easy (to be critical after the fact). The thing I will say is that the security force at Y-12 had done stellar on all of the performance tests.”
Kohlhorst noted there had been some security problems at Y-12 in the early 2000s.
“I remember (then-General Manager) Dennis Ruddy dealing with some of those issues, and it was a really very difficult issue, and our security rating was very low.”
After that, however, strong actions were taken both by B&W Y-12, the managing contractor at the Oak Ridge plant, and by Wackenhut, then the security contractor, Kohlhorst said. Y-12 subsequently received high ratings on all security evaluations, including force-on-force exercises, up until the big breach, he said.
Kohlhorst came to Oak Ridge when B&W took over management of Y-12 in 2000, initially heading the plant’s manufacturing division for the contractor and later assuming other executive roles. He became president and general manager in early 2008.
It wasn’t a surprise that the top executive in an organization would lose his job after such a devastating event. Government/contractor relationships, especially in the nuclear weapons complex, are not forgiving.
He knew the perils of the position, and he talked about it with his employees.
“I used to have a lot of all-hands meetings where we would talk about what we were doing at Y-12 and what was really important — the mission, security and safety — and I can remember on many, many occasions telling these people that my job depended on each and every one of them doing theirs. ... And so I knew that going into the job.”
How his firing came about, however, did take him by surprise.
On Friday, Aug. 10, 2012, two weeks after the unprecedented security breach, Y-12 was still operating in crisis mode. All nuclear operations were shut down to focus full attention on security training, and Kohlhorst called a meeting of managers and supervisors.
Because most Y-12 employees work so-called 4/10 schedules — four days a week, 10 hours a day — Friday is usually an off day. But this meeting was mandatory. It also was classified, because Kohlhorst wanted to share all the details of the security breach and what was being done at the nuclear weapons facility and what he needed each and every one of them to do.
By multiple accounts, the Y-12 boss was passionate and emotional.
Kohlhorst said he just wanted to make a couple of points to his people.
“One was that we were better than this,” he said. “This should not have happened at Y-12 under no conditions. But we were going to get through this. It wasn’t going to be without pain and all those other things, but by god I was going to be there to make sure it happened.”
A year and a half later, Kohlhorst can find some humor in the fact that soon after he promised his management staff and closest associates that he would be there to lead them through the troubled times he learned that, no, he wouldn’t.
“I got the word,” he said.
Indeed, Kohlhorst’s replacement as Y-12 general manager, Chuck Spencer, was in that meeting, and some of Kohlhorst’s supporters were upset by that, later deducing that Spencer had been sent to Oak Ridge by Babcock & Wilcox to take over Kohlhorst’s job and hadn’t given Kohlhorst the courtesy of a heads up.
Spencer, who had been Kohlhorst’s corporate boss as chief operating officer for B&W Technical Services Group, confirmed he was in the Y-12 management meeting but said he didn’t know what was getting ready to transpire. Kohlhorst said he doesn’t doubt him.
“I don’t believe for one second, knowing the kind of individual that Chuck Spencer is, that he would have allowed me to have gone in there and had that conversation with my people and not have told me,” he said.
Apparently, soon after Kohlhorst’s management meeting concluded that Friday, Spencer and his boss, George Dudich, president of B&W Technical Services Group, met with leaders of the National Nuclear Security Administration. That’s where the decision was reportedly made to change Y-12’s leadership.
Corporate leaders then met with Kohlhorst and told him he was gone. It was officially called a retirement.
In fact, Kohlhorst had actually planned on retiring in early 2012 as he approached 65, but Babcock & Wilcox persuaded him to stay and be a part of the proposed leadership team on the corporation’s bid on the new $22 billion contract that combines the management of Y-12 with the Pantex nuclear weapons facility in Texas.
“I actually signed a letter of intent to stay through the procurement process and for two years after that if we got a new contract,” he said. “I really thought I could make a significant contribution to consolidate the two plants, and so I agreed to stay on and do that.”
Kohlhorst would have been chief operating officer for B&W’s team, Nuclear Production Partners, but he was replaced in that role, too. The B&W team later lost its bid, but the contract award is still under protest.
Meanwhile, the three Y-12 protesters — Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed — are scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Knoxville.
Kohlhorst, who now works part-time as executive vice president for Omega Technical Services, a small business based in Oak Ridge, said he didn’t closely follow the protesters’ trial. But he said he has thought many times about what took place that fateful morning at Y-12 and the different scenarios of what could have happened.
“Virtually none of them are good,” he said. “I mean the only good scenario is if we had caught them coming over the hill or just as they were starting to get in there, just as they were starting to get up against the security barrier.”
The protesters put themselves in an extremely dangerous situation, where guards were authorized to use deadly force, Kohlhorst said.
“Not only could it have cost them their lives, but I can tell you it would have ruined the lives of those security forces had they intercepted them in the manner in which they were authorized to do. And so the courts are going to deal with them,” he said. “No matter how bad it is for them, if they have to spend prison time, we just could never give anybody the impression that they can break these kinds of laws and do this stuff and not suffer some serious consequences. Because we just can’t encourage that.”
He lost his job because of the events of July 28, 2012. But Kohlhorst doesn’t seem bitter. He said he never got angry.
“I’ve never felt like it was about me,” he said. “It was about Y-12 and the mission we have at Y-12 and how important it is and how important that we maintain the trust of the community and the American people, Congress and the military. Our job at Y-12 is to make sure that this country has the nuclear deterrent and we can’t do that if they’re not able to do the mission.”