Alarming Nuclear Security Blunder Demonstrates Need for Change

The Inspector General of the Department of Energy reported on September 24th that the Office of Secure Transportation (OST) failed to correctly report an incident involving unauthorized access to nuclear weapons.

Background

The OST is managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and is responsible for safely and securely transporting special nuclear material owned by the U.S. Government. “Special nuclear material” can include nuclear weapons, nuclear weapon components and fissile material. The OST implements the Human Reliability Program (HRP), which ensures that only authorized individuals with the “highest standards of reliability as well as physical and mental suitability” have access to special nuclear material. The vetting process includes a Q-level clearance, drug testing, and more. While the HRP was created with the aims of streamlining management and clarifying responsibilities, problems most assuredly remain.

What happened?

As this IG report suggests, there continues to be management and clarity issues within the NNSA-run office, of which this incident is a clear example considering the main cause was a lack of understanding of the duties, responsibilities and reporting requirements of personnel.

First, the OST agent who was allowed access to nuclear weapons was not properly checked for HRP status. Consequently, limitations that had been placed on the agent while temporarily off HRP status were not upheld.

Secondly, the OST failed to submit a complete report of the incident relating to the actions of the Unit Commander, and an internal investigation reached a flawed conclusion based on the incomplete report. (The IG report notes that the “Unit Commander did not take physical possession of the nuclear weapons.”)

The Report is marked For Official Use Only (FOUO) so further details are currently unavailable but can potentially be attained through a Freedom of Information Act Request.

This incident is the latest in a list of security and transparency issues that plague the NNSA and nuclear laboratories. As recently reported, Congress and the Government Accountability Office eagerly await a “roadmap” promised by the NNSA outlining a new clear vision and structural improvements to mitigate further ambiguity and security incidents. For more on the NNSA restructuring, click here.