(Reuters) – A shocking security breach at what was supposed to be one of the most secure facilities in the United States has put new attention on a proposal to overhaul the way the government oversees its nuclear laboratories and weapons plants.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved a plan to give more flexibility to the contractor-run facilities that make up the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, part of its annual defense policy bill passed in May.
The governance reforms were geared to address a long legacy of cost overruns and overly bureaucratic management highlighted in several bipartisan reports on the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is part of the Energy Department.
But some critics say the proposals need a second look in the wake of a July break-in at the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a contractor-run facility built after the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, once touted as “the Fort Knox of uranium” because of its security features.
Three aging anti-nuclear activists, including an 82-year-old nun, cut through fences surrounding a facility where highly enriched uranium, a key component of nuclear bombs, is stored. They vandalized its exterior, going unstopped until they walked up to a security guard’s car and surrendered.
“It seems to me this is a great case study of the fact that what you want is more government oversight,” said Peter Stockton, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight who has extensively studied nuclear security issues.
The incident and the broader issue of government oversight will be in focus on Capitol Hill this week when top Energy Department and NNSA officials testify at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday and the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
The changes proposed in the defense policy bill would give the NNSA more independence from the Energy Department, cut staff at the NNSA, give more authority to contractors, and change the way the NNSA reviews contractors’ work to “performance-based standards” rather than “detailed, transaction-based oversight.”
The White House said in May that it “strongly objects” to the changes in the House version of the bill, which it said would weaken oversight of contractors and lower safety standards for the nuclear weapons complex.
The Senate Armed Services Committee did not include similar reforms in its version of the bill. The Senate has not taken up the legislation, which is not expected to move through Congress until after the November 6 presidential election.
LEGACY OF POOR MANAGEMENT
The Energy Department’s Inspector General found multiple failures of sophisticated security systems and “troubling displays of ineptitude” in a review of what happened at Y-12.
The government budgeted about $150 million for security at the facility, which is run by Babcock & Wilcox Co with security provided by contractor WSI Oak Ridge, owned by international security firm G4S.
The investigation into the Y-12 incident found that security officers failed to follow protocol, and also noted that a security camera that would have shown the break-in had been broken for about six months, part of a backlog of repairs needed for security systems at the facility.
The NNSA and its contractors removed some staff and supervisors and the government told Babcock & Wilcox last month that its contract could be terminated.
The NNSA, created in 2000 after a national laboratory employee was accused of stealing nuclear secrets for China, has had a long struggle with containing costs.
The Government Accountability Office last year said the Energy Department’s “record of inadequate management and oversight of contractors has left the department vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.”
About 40 percent or $11 billion of the department’s total budget goes to the NNSA, which oversees a network of eight government-owned laboratories and facilities run by contractors.
A bipartisan task force in 2009 recommended a governance overhaul to fix problems created by an “excessively bureaucratic” culture.
The laboratories have chafed under what they call redundant and “overly prescriptive” government rules that they say waste scarce resources.
In April, the directors of the three weapons labs issued a series of recommendations to overhaul governance, giving the labs more flexibility and cutting back on NNSA oversight.
“Many reports by independent committees have found the micromanagement of the NNSA labs is debilitating and costly, and other reports have called for increased oversight,” the directors said in their recommendations.
“While these findings appear to be in opposition, one conclusion is clear – the governance of the NNSA labs is broken and must be changed,” they said.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Eric Walsh)