Two and one-half weeks ago, a Saturday, three people broke into the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, a huge conglomeration of research labs just west of Knoxville, Tennessee. The suspects, each of whom was arrested but only after breaching the security systems and defacing building walls, carried bolt cutters, flashlights, and other simple tools anyone can buy at the local Wal-Mart. The three were inside the lab grounds for several hours before they were discovered.
One of these alleged felons, who if found guilty as charged may serve as many as 16 years in prison, is an 82 year old Catholic Nun by the name of Sister Megan Rice. Her accomplices were aged 63 and 57. After deciding less than a month before to break into the facility-one of their targets was the new $500 million Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility-these three, the octogenarian nun and the 63 and 57 year old male accomplices, attacked before dawn.
The alleged perpetrators circumvented what was described in the New York Times as a series of fences, barbed wire, video cameras, motion detectors, and other surveillance equipment, while dodging armed guards. They then roamed freely among the multitude of major research labs containing a variety of dangerous chemicals and nuclear materials. Somehow these three suspects were not observed by any of the surveillance equipment in place, including the armed security guards, nor the 1,600 scientists and engineers along with 4,400 staff who are also on site. While they did not apparently break into the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility with its enormous walls and towers, they did have plenty of time to deface its walls.
While many pundits have already had their say, and while the prosecutors are no doubt building an airtight case against the three nuclear protestors, at least one major lesson remains in the closet. Why didn’t any of the very expensive and redundant surveillance technology identify a breech? If indeed the video cameras were broken, the sensors as old as Methuselah, and the layers of barb wire as brittle as the bones of the 83 year old nun, then who really is to blame. And if a few supervisors are going to be fired, and maybe even the security head sent packing, will this symbolic housekeeping really improve the security at this and our other nuclear facilities?
I’d like to argue for the centrality of human error in this scenario. The fact is, it is usually not the technology which fails, it is those who are operating the technology. Operator error is a fact of life in security surveillance which few are willing to address.
In the meantime we have a large number of nuclear facilities and chemical plants all of which, regardless of their sophisticated systems of protection, rely on humans to properly operate and maintain. There is much to be learned by this incident if we would only consider and acknowledge the impact of operator error on surveillance.