WASHINGTON -- The contractors in charge of guarding the national stockpile of bomb-grade uranium in Tennessee knew well before an 82-year-old nun and two other pacifists broke through three barriers this summer that a lot of the security equipment was broken, and government managers knew it too, according to an internal audit of Energy Department operations at the weapons facility. The inspector general's investigation found "troubling displays of ineptitude."
The intruders used ordinary bolt cutters to penetrate as far as the uranium storage building before dawn on July 28, and then went undiscovered until they approached an officer in his vehicle and surrendered, according to the audit. The officer failed to draw his gun or even secure his gun from seizure, "and permitted the trespassers to roam about and retrieve various items from backpacks they had apparently brought into the area," the report said.
The three antiwar protesters -- Sister Megan Gillespie Rice, of Las Vegas; Michael R. Walli, 63, of Washington; and Gregory I. Boertje-Obed, 57, of Duluth, Minn. -- have been charged with felonies in connection with damage to the building. They said they had brought bread and candles for a Christian ritual.
The guard told The Knoxville News that he was being used as a scapegoat, and that it was obvious that the trio posed no threat.
Internal communications at the weapons plant, Y-12, near Oak Ridge, Tenn., were generally so poor that security officers told the auditors that it was not unusual for roofers or utility repair personnel to show up unannounced, and that when they heard the trespassers banging on the exterior wall of the storage building with hammers, they assumed it was maintenance workers.
The Energy Department's inspector general, Gregory H. Friedman, said in the report that the episode showed "multiple system failures on many levels." He said the facility would spend $150 million for security this year.
The government skimped on security hardware before the storage building was finished in 2008, the report said, and the National Nuclear Security Agency, a part of the Energy Department formed to handle weapons security after a previous scandal, told managers at the site last year to plan for reduced security funds.
As a result, the contractor, WSI-Oak Ridge, cut back on patrols and announced plans to cut 70 security staff positions, although those plans were canceled after the July breach.
Before the incident, the contractor conducted "self-assessment" reports that concluded that security was good, and these were endorsed by government site managers despite "a number of known security-related problems at Y-12," the report said. These included broken cameras and other unspecified sensing equipment. (One camera actually provided an image of the three breaking in, but the security officer missed it, the report said.)
The "governance model" at the site "did not identify the weaknesses that contributed to the security incident," the report said. In fact, federal officials told the auditors that under their management rules, they did not believe they could intervene in the security contractor's operations to complain about broken equipment. Some sites repair broken sensors and cameras within 24 hours; Y-12 set a window of 5 to 10 days, but that was only a goal, not a rule, the report said.
The report pointed to a variety of other problems that violated department policy. One was relying on "pan-tilt-zoom" cameras that sweep back and forth, because a sophisticated adversary could learn their pattern and time an entry to avoid detection.
Since the breach, the plant's general manager has been removed, along with leaders of the guard force, and the Energy Department has begun proceedings to fire the management contractor, a subsidiary of Babcock & Wilcox, an energy technology and services provider that was responsible for the security hardware. And a new government security expert has been brought in.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.