NNSA and Contractors’ ‘Nuclear Safety Culture’ Spawns Y-12 Breach

It was the security guard who first arrested Sister Rice and her two accomplices who was immediately identified by name and fired after the Y-12 security breach.  This in spite of the fact that the Y-12 nuclear facility is described as, “…an extensive security mechanism that relies on well-trained and extensively equipped protective force, advanced technology, and a variety of physical fortifications”.  Annual security costs at Y-12 are $150 million.

The security breach at Y-12 is more accurately understood not as the fault of a single guard, but as one among a number of facilities under the purview of the National Nuclear Security Administration experiencing repeated security and safety lapses The NNSA, a semi-autonomous agency created by Congress in 2000 to address serious issues that the DOE was unable to resolve, is also responsible for cost and schedule overruns by private contractors.

Two months before the breach at Y-12, outside consultants hired to assess the “nuclear safety culture” in the construction of a new building in the stages of advanced planning at Y-12, the Uranium Procession Facility (UPF), expressed concerns about the responsibility for different safety and security issues between and among the NSAA, Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Y-12 (B&W Y-12), and the four subcontractors hired in the design phase of the UPF project

According to the independent consultants, the NNSA, on-site manager B&W Y-12, and its four contractors, Merrick & Company, Jacobs Engineering, CH2M Hill, and URS Corporation, all failed to take ownership of vital safety and security issues and, instead, were allowed to presume others responsible.

In short, “The safety culture experts determined that the willingness to raise concerns and identify problems across the UPF Organization is not as pervasive as it should be to ensure that the organization is preventing events and learning form its performance.  Negative perceptions around feeling free to challenge management decisions and believing that constructive criticism is encouraged may be contributing to the behavior.”

It is the responsibility of NNSA to hire a site manager that clearly oversees all sub-contractors and defines responsibilities for all safety and security issues.  At the same time, it is Congress that must provide the final oversight of NNSA, including the responsibility for the security breach at Y-12 and the errant nuclear safety culture that spawned it.

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