A culture of cheating pervades the guard force at America's premier processing and storage site for nuclear weapons-grade uranium, according to a new report this week by the Energy Department's inspector general.
Contract officers and supervisors of the force at the Y-12 plant outside Knoxville, Tennessee, shared advance copies of test materials with patrolmen, said inspector general Gregory H. Friedman, rendering their responses unreliable. But he put the blame squarely on the Energy Department for mismanaging the facility's operations.
The abuses he cited are not new. Eight years ago, Friedman blew the whistle on even worse cheating by the Y-12 guard force, disclosing that for years they obtained advance word of mock assaults meant to test their capabilities, and carefully redeployed their forces to produce impressive but faked results.
But this time, Friedman suggested the problem was not isolated. A contract official who works both at Y-12 and another "high-security DOE" site told Friedman's staff that the official "had taken similar actions" to share written test materials in advance with the managers of that site's guard force, his report stated.
Friedman's report did not name the second site, but two government officials confirmed it is the sensitive facility known as Pantex, in Amarillo, Texas, the government's principal factory for assembling, taking apart, and storing plutonium triggers for its nuclear arsenal. As a result, the reliability of the protective force for key components of that arsenal in two locations can now be considered open to question.
The cheating at Y-12 was discovered by accident four weeks after a group of peace activists, including an 82-year old nun, penetrated security fences surrounding the half-billion dollar Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility in late July. A special test of the guard force was then organized, but it was suspended in late August when a visiting Energy Department official noticed a copy of written test questions in a patrol vehicle at Y-12.
How the test got into the hands of the guards reads like a tale from middle school. As Friedman explained in his 14-page report, the guards there got advance copies of the test from their superiors at the contractor that provided site security, WSI-Oak Ridge, who in turn got it from an official at Babcock and Wilcox Technical Services Y-12, LLC, the main contractor responsible for all the operations there.
That person, in turn, got it from an official in the Energy Department's Health, Safety and Security Office, who had asked the contractor to review it for "accuracy."
What should one do when the teacher finds an advance copy of a school exam in one's hands just as the test is getting under way? Several dozen WSI-Oak Ridge employees interviewed by Friedman's inspectors said they thought it was given out as a study guide, prompting him to write drily that he "found the credibility of this testimony to be questionable."
One reason is that the word "TEST" appears in bold letters on the header on the first page, a fact that guard supervisors improbably claimed they never noticed, Friedman said. Another reason is that a WSI-Oak Ridge official, when circulating the test questions to colleagues, noted in an e-mail that it "would not be a good idea...for a [police officer] to have these in hand during an audit."
The unnamed official stripped that phraseology -- which suggested some foreknowledge of wrongdoing -- from a copy of his email before handing it over to investigators, according to Friedman's report. He was subsequently fired by WSI-Oak Ridge, the report added.