OAK RIDGE — The head of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex said there’s no doubt that security has improved since July 28, 2012, when three peace activists infiltrated Y-12 and reached the Oak Ridge plant’s inner sanctum. But he stopped short of promising that such a security breach won’t happen again.
“Nobody can make that promise,” Frank G. Klotz, chief of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said in interview last week during a visit to the Oak Ridge plant.
“What you can promise is that you’ll work every day to make sure that you have the right guidance, you have the right leadership, you have the right equipment. You have to have the right sense of the importance of this to prevent it from happening again.”
Klotz said the security incident at Y-12 grabbed the attention not only of the NNSA and the Department of Energy, but the federal government as a whole.
He said Y-12 officials could cite a long list of improvements that have been made over the past couple of years, but what he found most important was the work done in the plant’s central control system to reduce the number of “nuisance alarms,” to make sure that malfunctioning sensors and alarms are repaired “very, very rapidly,” and that the protective guard force understands that they have to respond to each and every incident as if it were a serious event.
Klotz was sworn in April 17 as the administrator of the NNSA. The retired Air Force lieutenant general has had plenty of experience with nuclear weapons, having commanded the Air Force Global Strike Command from 2009 to 2011. The command was created, in part, to address weaknesses in the management of nuclear weapons — including a 2007 incident in which nuclear-armed cruise missiles were accidentally flown over parts of the U.S.
When asked what his first thoughts were when he heard that three activists, including an 82-year-old nun, had crossed a ridge and reached the Protected Area at Y-12 — which was supposed to be one of America’s most tightly guarded installations — Klotz said he was struck by the similarities with past security breaches in the military or the way serious accidents have occurred in the military.
“There’s not one single causal factor. There are multi-variant explanations for what happened, and they all combined at the wrong time to produce an accident or incident,” he said. “What I was struck by, again, is the notion that you (are at risk) when you accept deviations as the new normal. It seemed to me there had been an acceptance of broken sensors, false alarms, and people had come to accept that as a way of life rather than working to solve or fix those problems so that sensors worked the way they were supposed to or the security system worked the way it was supposed to.”
Y-12 is currently undergoing a change of contractors. Management of the Oak Ridge plant is being combined with the Pantex warhead assembly/disassembly plant in Texas, and Consolidated Nuclear Security — a partnership led by Bechtel National — will take responsibility on July. The guard force at each plant is part of main contractor organization.
CNS is replacing contractor teams headed by Babcock & Wilcox at each of the sites, and Klotz said he believes the transition is going well.
“What we’re pleased with is the positive collaboration between the incoming and outgoing contractors, which is our expectation,” he said. “And the environment has been constructive across the board and has enabled us to very methodically work our way through all these transition activities.”
While at Y-12, Klotz held an all-hands meeting at the New Hope Center.
Asked what was the most positive thing he had to say to employees, Klotz said, “We told them they are part of a mission of critical and enduring importance to this country. And that no matter who you are, whether you are a federal employee, contractor employee, or whether you’re a technician, scientist, engineer or administrator in HR (human resources), the job is extraordinarily important to the success of the effort.”