The Energy Department stockpiles many explosives, including nuclear material, usually for research. But a series of reports have raised concerns that department laboratories could be mishandling explosives, possibly putting the public at risk.
Long before an 82-year-old nun and her band of protesters easily penetrated security at the Oak Ridge nuclear facility last month, the Energy Department was put on repeated notice about security at its premier research laboratories.
The labs -- home to some of America's deepest nuclear secrets and stockpiles of volatile and radiological materials -- have been warned repeatedly about vulnerabilities ranging from mishandled explosives to overworked or drunken nuclear safety employees, a Washington Guardian review of a decade's worth of watchdog reports shows.
For instance, recent inspections at South Carolina's Savannah River facility and the national lab in Idaho found that volatile explosives were stored near flammable materials or inspected in crowded public areas during rush hour, raising the risks of accidental explosions that could injure civilians.
The finding mirrored similar problems uncovered a decade ago with TNT and C-4 explosives stored at DOE facilities, suggesting little has changed.
Meanwhile, DOE's armored vehicles used to transport radiological materials are growing antiquated and operated by workers who are increasingly taxed by an average of 700 overtime hours a year.
The reason, officials say, is that the staff used to dismantle nuclear weapons and keep radiological materials out of the hands of rogue players has not kept pace with burgeoning anti-proliferation duties.
Even at Los Alamos -- the birthplace of the hydrogen bomb -- concerns persist about whether sensitive facilities are protected from the effects of an earthquake or wildfires.
The repeated warnings have some observers concerned about the potential for a catastrophic Big Bang incident.
"Things are getting worse because there's been periodically, for more than a decade, major security issues that have arisen at Department of Energy facilities," said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an energy and environment watchdog.
Lyman called the break-in at Oak Ridge "incredibly serious" and a huge breach of security. He doesn't think such issues have quite reached the level of "trend" across the department, but has seen some DOE facilities fail to address problems they were warned about years ago. "The fact that they’re screwing up again isn’t a surprise," he said.
Energy Department officials say they are acutely aware of the concerns raised by internal and external watchdogs, and most are being addressed now.
“There are problems and there are issues that needed to be addressed,” said Rickey Hass, the Energy Department's deputy inspector general for audits and inspections. But he added, "explosives management is not in dire circumstances."
Still, knowing about problems and fixing them can be two different things, as the episode last week at the government's only weapons-grade uranium storage site showed.
During the early hours of July 28, three anti-nuclear activists, including an 82-year-old Catholic nun, breached a security fence and were able to reach the outside of a building used to store uranium at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
The storage building, built after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was supposed to have modern security to make it impenetrable to terrorists, let alone pacifist protesters. The National Nuclear Security Administration says it is taking the incident "very seriously."
Almost all explosive storage facilities are run by private businesses that contract with the Energy Department. G4S, the company that provides security at Oak Ridge, has already announced its replacing the general manager at the facility following the security breach.
Lyman called the incident "extremely troubling." He said the budget for security at Energy Department facilities has decreased - and not because security threats have disappeared. Instead, it's due to a combination of budget cuts and belief that contractors should be governing themselves, he said.
"The move towards further reduction of central oversight with the powers of enforcement is an invitation to disaster, because we’re talking about some of the most dangerous materials in the world," Lyman said. "We’re putting the fox in charge of the hen house here by letting the contractors define their own levels of security compliance.”
Likewise, the Energy Department has boasted strict safety policies for handling explosives - usually kept at different facilities from those that store nuclear material. Yet, inspectors found lapses at two sites recently that mirror those uncovered years earlier.
For instance, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Idaho National Laboratory performed explosive shipment inspections during peak traffic hours at populated main gates rather than at remote areas during non-peak traffic hours as required by safety procedures.
And if anything was found wrong with the shipments, handlers could return them to the manufacturers, putting potentially unsafe explosives on public highways, the inspections found.
In response to the concerns, the DOE's Explosives Safety Committee said the inspections at the gates were meant to be brief security checks before the shipments were moved to more secure areas for a thorough inspection, but it is looking at ways to continue improving safety.
The recent inspections also reported that officials at the facilities in Los Alamos, Savannah River, Sandia and Idaho had left combustible items stored with explosives, a vulnerability that has been found repeatedly over the last decade.
In 2006, a report by the inspector general found that Sandia National Laboratory could not properly account for many high explosives and kept an inaccurate inventory of what was on site. The lab couldn’t find 410 items, including shaped explosives, rocket motors, and detonators that were supposed to be sent to private businesses.
And, as far back as 2002, the inspector general found problems at the Nevada Operations Office, a storage site with 15,000 pounds of C-4 and TNT, among other explosives. Manyof the containers in Nevada were missing a “shelf-life” label showing when the explosive material could start to break down and become unstable. And flammable wooden pallets and crates were stored in sheds with explosives, including one with several 2,000 pound bombs.
Hass said putting flammable material in with the explosives was mostly simple mistakes by a few individuals. “People left handcarts, or there might be a little bit of trash,” he said. “It wasn’t a wholesale movement of stuff in there.” Still, the inspector general report noted it only takes a small amount of flammable materials to create a catastrophe inside an explosives bunker.
Similar concerns have surfaced with DOE's radioactive materials.
In June, an investigation by the inspector general found the Energy Department’s Office of Secure Transportation is facing increasing problems in carrying out its mission to transport nuclear weapons and other nuclear material.
The office inside the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration is facing increased demand for its services due to presidential initiatives and non-proliferation agreements, but its infrastructure isn't keeping pace, oficials said. All of OST’s armored trucks -- used to transport nuclear material -- are outdated and are receiving upgrades to try to extend their usefulness.
The study also found OST agents worked an average of 712 hours of overtime in 2010, raising concerns about fatigue and the agents’ ability to safely carry out their duties.
The warnings about workers being stretched thin follow earlier revelations that between 2007 and 2009 there were 16 incidents in which OST agents charged with the transportation of nuclear weapons were found to have been intoxicated.
The 16 incidents involved only a handful of 597 agents and other personnel that work for the agency. Two of the cases happened during transportation missions while agents were at a hotel, but the inspector general found no evidence agents were driving while intoxicated.
The Energy Department referred all questions to the NNSA, which declined to add further comment, stating its responses were provided in the various reports.
Within the reports, NNSA said it "acknowledged that it faces significant challenges," but said it will "continue improving NNSA's secure and safe transport of nuclear weapons." The office has taken a number of steps to improve safety, including refurbishing its existing fleet of nuclear transport-trucks while also requesting replacements.
In May, a report from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board – an independent agency tasked with providing advice on ensuring nuclear safety – said that Los Alamos National Laboratory had vastly underestimated the damage that could be caused by an earthquake.
After the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year, Los Alamos determined that repair workers after an earthquake would be exposed to radiation leaks within manageable ranges. But the board found that the likely exposure would be four times higher than what Los Alamos estimated.
And quakes are only one natural threat. Various news agencies reported last year that wildfires in New Mexico threatened some 30,000 barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste being kept in fabric tents at Los Alamos. Officials said the drums were kept on pavement away from trees, and that the lab’s structures and emergency procedures were designed to handle wildfires.
Hass said the inspector general’s reports were not meant to criticize the various DOE offices, but to highlight areas for improvement.
“We think going forward if they continue on the path that they are that it could pose a problem in the future,” he said. “It isn’t as if they are blind to this. They realize that they’re trying to take on some of the problems.”
The Department of Energy is the government branch that regulates and researches energy, including environmental impact and nuclear concerns.
The National Nuclear Security Administration is a semi-autonomous office within the Dept. of Energy in charge of the nation's nuclear stockpile and non-proliferation programs.
The Office of Secure Transport, within the NNSA, is in charge of transporting the nation's nuclear material, including nuclear weapons.