Aiken, S.C. – Tons of weapons grade plutonium and other nuclear materials, a target for terrorists, are not being properly protected by the National Nuclear Security Administration at the Department of Energy’s sprawling Savannah River Site, according to security consultants and U.S. counterintelligence officials.
A secret security review underway at DOE and other government agencies after an elderly nun last summer breached a NNSA bomb-grade-uranium facility at the Oak Ridge Tennessee Y12 area reveals “harrowing problems in site management and control at other DOE sites,” said a Homeland Security official who requested anonymity. The official said that the Savannah River Site was of concern because “SRS does not have the staffing or the facilities to protect the huge amounts of plutonium that have been brought to SRS in recent years.”
Road Entrance to Savannah River Site
SRS has one of the greatest concentrations in the world of radioactive material. In one old reactor building – the K Area Material Storage (KAMS) facility – protected by the same contractors that botched security at Oakridge, there is enough weapons grade plutonium to destroy the world multiple times. Here plutonium in its purest form can be found by the ton.
There are no military guards at SRS as there are at most facilities where nuclear weapons are transported or stored or nuclear-powered ships or submarines are based. Instead, a privately contracted guard force, numbering in the hundreds, is responsible for a facility bigger in area than Washington, D.C. and its inside-the-beltway suburbs. That private guard force has to contend with numerous entrances to the more than 310 square mile facility as well as a public highway that cuts through it and 17 miles of Savannah River shoreline that runs unnervingly close to the KAMS facility where the plutonium is stored.
The private contractor guard force is owned by a foreign company with a long record of botched security operations from Afghanistan to London to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Mike Pilgrim, a top security contractor who has done security work for SRS, said the security situation at the facility is “a serious threat to public safety.” Pilgrim’s job is to imagine the worst possible scenario that could happen and figure out how to stop it. He has worked around the world protecting presidents, military bases, airports and, earlier in his long career, DOE nuclear sites, including SRS.
Pilgrim said, “SRS is the 3 a.m. nightmare… It is where Al Qaeda or a domestic lunatic could do real damage – permanent unrecoverable damage.” Pilgrim’s fears are borne out by intelligence reports going back to 2000 when the CIA discovered that Osama bin Laden was trying to obtain nuclear materials for a terrorist attack. In the treasure trove of information gathered about the intentions of Al Qaeda terrorists was a list of potential targets. At first, U.S. authorities assumed nuclear materials would be obtained from Pakistan’s own facilities or North Korea. The CIA thought an attempt would be made to purchase materials from disgruntled former Soviet technicians and scientists. But as the international community worked together to successfully lock down these sources after 9/11, the possibility of a theft or assault on a U.S. facility such as SRS was taken more seriously.
U.S. intelligence has long suspected that Al Qaeda or the Iranian-supported Lebanese group, Hezbollah, would target a U.S. nuclear facility. Repercussions from even an attempt could be devastating. The threat, according to Pilgrim and other experts, was not just from foreign terrorists. “One had to consider the possibility that a home grown extremist group might try to make an anti-government statement of their own at a DOE facility and attempt a theft of material or an attack,” Pilgrim said.
U.S. officials are not prepared to protect U.S. facilities from a “lone wolf” much less a more sophisticated attack that would combine terrorism with a suicide mission to obtain military grade nuclear materials. Unfortunately, intelligence from interrogations, materials recovered from Al Qaeda safe houses and Afghan caves, and Bin Laden’s villa in Abbottabad, Pakistan, point to just such a scenario.
At the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, a new, independent entity inside DOE was put in charge of handling all nuclear weapons activities as well as the country’s nuclear nonproliferation efforts. The National Nuclear Security Administration was given a major role in helping other countries manage surplus nuclear weapons or reactor materials. NNSA began to sell itself to diplomats as an agency that could be trusted to build nuclear weapons and then provide the solution to stop weapons proliferation.
The problem is in its brief history. Internal security at NNSA has followed a long history that began with the old Atomic Energy Agency: weak site security and poor employee and contractor screening.
“NNSA is not trusted by other security components of the U.S. government,” a top official at the Department of Homeland Security said, “because of a series of security missteps in managing its own facilities and contractors.” These security issues range from high-level clearances being given to unqualified employees to ignoring security concerns over NNSA contractors and facilities.
When asked which DOE site is the most difficult to protect, Pilgrim said, “I believe, as do many other security professionals, there is no more sensitive target for terrorism – domestic or foreign – than the huge and increasingly vulnerable Savannah River Site. It is a geographic nightmare…”
K Area Material facility
A DOE security source shared a scenario of how the department might face a multi-pronged attack at the SRS facility. “Because State Highway 125 passes close to the most sensitive site at SRS, we think this area would be the most likely target. The site can be attacked from the nearby Savannah River’s North Shore, which is just a few miles from K Area Material. So if you had a pair of well trained teams coming in – one by car and one by boat – we assume they could reach the perimeter of the K Area Material Facility before our sensors would pick them up. We are confident we could respond in time to take out such terrorist teams. The problem comes if there is a suicide component to an attack. Then all bets are off. The plutonium we are storing is highly active. If an explosion disturbs it, then we could face a massive fire with a plutonium flash and large scale exposure.”
The Department of Energy has a security record that is one of the worst in the federal government. In July, an 83-year-old nun and two cohorts successfully pierced the DOE’s Y-12 Highly Enriched Uranium Manufacturing Facility, managed by NNSA at Oakridge, Tennessee. They splashed blood on the new, $500 million plant that is surrounded by huge guard towers. This event happened at the same time NNSA is assuring the rest of the world that it can safely store and protect nuclear materials sent to the United States. Last summer’s embarrassment was all the more humiliating to NNSA because it had just praised Wackenhut, the security contractor, for its great work at the facility. What happened at Oak Ridge is but one in a long line of almost comical nuclear security lapses over the years.
The Department of Energy has a weak security record going back to the days of the old Atomic Energy Commission. During the cold war, more attention was paid to the loyalty of scientists and engineers than protecting the physical facilities. In the 1960s, when the AEC was located in an office on H Street a few blocks from the White House, it took years for management to discover that the head of Safeguards and Security was a compulsive gambler who had run up huge debts. Then there is the bizarre case of GeorgeWeisz, a former top-level CIA covert operations official who ended up at DOE in the 1970s as the head of safeguards and security. While working on a very sensitive DOE national security case, Weisz was found dead in his garage at his Maryland farm in 1982. Under pressure from the intelligence community, the Maryland medical examiner ruled it a suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning until police pictures revealed the motor was in the “off” position when his body was discovered. Weisz was searching for a Soviet mole in the Reagan White House. His case has never been solved.
In the 1980s, a security test at the now decommissioned Rocky Flats plutonium trigger facility ended when two actual plutonium bomb triggers were taken away from the facility at gunpoint, demonstrating the security system there was a complete failure.
In 1999, Congress created the new, independent NNSA in response to security breaches that resulted in the loss of nuclear secrets to the Chinese. In 2000, security hard disks were “lost” at SRS which caused the FBI to conclude the entire security system at the facility was completely compromised. A few months before 9/11, the main SRS contractor at the time sold truckloads of computers used in the most secure areas at SRS to China without first erasing the hard drives on the computers. This came at the same time the Chinese government had successfully penetrated the Army’s supercomputer lab at Aberdeen, Maryland, where nuclear codes are generated for the United States nuclear weapons arsenal.
DOE has a long history of using Wackenhut Security as a key security contractor. Wackenhut has had the security contract for SRS since 1983. The company is now wholly-owned by foreign security firm G4S, the same company that won notoriety on 9/11 when its Argenbright Security division ran passenger checkpoints at Dulles and Newark airports where hijackers boarded planes. Its performance on 9/11 was the major political impetus Congress used to federalize all airline security and create the Transportation Security Administration.
G4S was involved in a major scandal when its employees took part in bizarre hazing rituals when supposedly guarding State Department employees in Afghanistan. More recently, the company so botched security preparations for the London Olympics, the British government was forced to call in the army at the last minute.
Frank Argenbright, who sold his airport security firm to G4S/Securicor before 9/11, said, “This is a company that moves cash for banks and was basically in the armored car business. It acquired firms that were engaged in guarding seriously secure government facilities. These are too very different businesses…Their approach is a low cost workforce delivering large scale security at a low price.” One of the companies G4S acquired was Wackenhut Security, which had a long and troubled relationship with DOE guarding its most sensitive facilities. Wackenhut has had serious failures at both DOE and civilian reactor facilities that include guards repeatedly being caught asleep while on the job in critical areas. Argenbright said, “After they bought my company it became clear to me they were a low cost basic operation. They cut back on everything. They were not responsive to customers like airline presidents who were concerned that security was being downgraded. I would get calls from them complaining about how unresponsive they were.”
According to Pilgrim, there is a disconnect among SRS security officials “such as making certain there is real communication between security and intelligence operations.” According to an FBI source, NNSA may have vital information like in the case of the aged nun who planned to get very close to huge amounts of bomb grade uranium, but NNSA never passed it on to the contractor Wackenhut. NNSA and DOE had no excuse for not being on the lookout. The FBI had been tracking her anti-weapons group for decades and had, in fact, infiltrated it. NNSA had been warned about her previous activities tracking trucks carrying nuclear weapons. ABC News had even run a piece on Evening News on the group more than a decade earlier. “The problem was NNSA security failed to pass on this information to their own contractors,” a FBI source told DCBureau.
The Savannah River Site is in many ways far more sensitive than the Y 12 plant the nun penetrated. Wackenhut/G4S security guards are protecting massive amounts of high-level nuclear waste, huge amounts of bomb-grade plutonium and a host of secret NNSA activities too sensitive to be revealed publicly. “A real security breach there could make what happened a decade ago on 9/11 seem minor in terms of lost lives and damage to U.S. security,” Mike Pilgrim said.
Compounding the terrorist threat at SRS is NNSA management of security. “NNSA presses its contractors do things as cheaply as possible. It sets up incentives for contractors such as Wackenhut/G4S for saving on hours and expenses. They are incentivizing security shortcuts and creating a culture that puts a premium on cost cutting and not security,” Pilgrim said.
There have been numerous congressional hearings on just how poor G4S performs its duties not only for NNSA, but also for equally sensitive departments such as Homeland Security. A top security official testified that a botched anthrax scare had compromised security in Building 1 at the agency because of Wackenhut’s poor response. That building houses the Secretary of Homeland Security.
“The Oak Ridge invaders should have been detained and possibly shot before they ever got close to the facility,” one high-level NNSA source told DCBureau. Why that did not happen is now under investigation by DOE. Getting to the building containing highly enriched uranium at Oakridge is a huge security breach. “But if serious terrorists breached Savannah River, the damage they could inflict would be immediate and the contamination that might result could make a large swath of the South uninhabitable. A major plutonium criticality incident could unleash a radioactive plume that would reach all the way to Washington, D.C.,” a NNSA source said.
Savannah River Site Entrance
Numerous visits to SRS – official and otherwise – since the 1980s reveal that most of the security at SRS as well as other DOE facilities is very similar to what passengers see at airports. It looks very impressive at the front gate but around back, a chain link fence is really all that separates the American public from a zealot or lunatic with a cheap pair of bolt cutters trying to inflict as much harm on the nation as possible. According to a series of DOE Inspector General reports on security procedures and background checks, the NNSA has repeatedly ignored or refused to correct problems regarding unreturned access badges from contractors and employees. It also has a long history of employee-record database problems at both SRS and other DOE facilities. This could mean, according to Pilgrim and FBI sources, that there are employees at SRS who should not be working at the facility.
NNSA is responsible for making certain SRS employees get complete background checks to obtain the “Q” security clearance needed to do high-level work at the facility. In 2006, Martin Salazar was indicted and convicted of making false statements, including his age, birthplace and education to DOE. He worked for years at the Site with a fake engineering degree. Recently Salazar was arrested again for threatening the judge involved in his case.
Wackenhut VP/GM, Randy Garver
Randy Garver is Vice President and General Manager of Wackenhut which has the contract to secure the Savannah River Site. Garver runs what amounts to a small army (estimated at 600-800) to secure the sprawling facility. Garver takes great pride in his team at SRS and past critics of security at DOE sites have signaled out SRS as one of the best protected facilities in the DOE complex. But Garver says his responsibility begins and ends with “guard protection.” According to the guard force labor agreement, bonuses are paid to the best shooters. He and his team are completely dependent on NNSA to warn them of external threats to the site and, because he has no counterintelligence capability, he is also dependent on NNSA to tell him if there is a problem with an employee or a contractor. Morale among the guard force has plummeted as NNSA has ordered cutbacks at the Site.
DOE’s internal security apparatus is responsible for counterintelligence to make certain potential terrorists are not hired by contractors or can gain access to the Site. According to Pilgrim, there is always an issue of sharing key security information among those responsible for perimeter security and those who control the information. “The real worry is that headquarters security is afraid that it will risk breaking security by passing on too much information to a contractor,” Pilgrim said. “Conversely, if the contractor does not get key information about a threat, perimeter security is threatened.”
Pilgrim says, “The fact that Wackenhut has no counterintelligence or cyber security capability means there is no backup if DOE or NNSA misses something important.”
DOE Safeguards and Security is responsible for setting up perimeter security penetration tests based on terrorism and other scenarios. Pilgrim says other contractors are hired to conduct these surprise “red team tests.” There are also periodic tests that Wackenhut knows about in advance, as part of its contract. “These tests are going to take place on a regular basis,” he said. But according to Wackenhut employees who spoke to DCBureau on the condition they not be identified, NNSA and DOE officials routinely warn site managers in advance of even the unplanned security tests. DOE investigators have long complained about a cozy relationship between NNSA and Wackenhut. One investigator said, “To keep getting contracts, Wackenhut will keep quiet when budgets are cut and submit proposals that make NNSA management look good but may not be adequate to secure the site.”
Another major issue at SRS is a lack of emergency coordination with local law enforcement. One of the most shocking statements made by Garver was that if there is a security emergency he does not have the authority to get help from nearby U.S. Army facilities like Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, or Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. He must notify DOE in Washington first.
J. Clay Killian, Aiken County Administrator
Local officials also feel that the relationship with SRS is not one of mutual trust. J. Clay Killian, the Aiken County Administrator, said SRS has good relations with the community, “but there is not a lot of disaster preparation going on with local authorities.” Other regional officials agree with Killian and say that they assume that the U.S. military would be called in right away to supplement Wackenhut if there was a terrorist incident at the Site. In fact, Garver said he is required to notify NNSA in Washington before reaching out to local authorities if there is an attack at SRS.
Despite repeated and well-documented problems with Wackenhut guards, the company dominates both the commercial nuclear industry and DOE nuclear sites. Wackenhut’s political connections overcome years of complaints from Inspector General and Tiger Team reports on failed security tests at DOE facilities. NNSA contracted again with Wackenhut for SRS security last spring.
SRS vulnerability was exposed last summer when a pair of alleged robbers actually managed to escape into the SRS campus. According to WRDW-TV, police officers said the men led them on a chase down SC-HWY 125 before crashing the Savannah River Site barricade. “The suspects continued to flee from officers as they entered the Savannah River Site, according to officers.” The robbers were apprehended after getting between 10 and 15 miles inside the gates, not by Wackenhut, but by local police.
The vast array of ground and air sensors on the Site work well, according to a DOE spokesman, but because SRS is under guarded, the incident demonstrated that a more careful intrusion might take “so long to detect that responding to an incident may not be as fast as a sensitive site requires.”
Just why the Savannah River Site is so vulnerable can be summed up in one word, according to Pilgrim: “Scale. It is huge with too many sensitive facilities to protect.” Pilgrim helped devise some of the SRS security. “We have concentrated too much weapons grade material to the Site. It has too many access points and security there is inconsistent. It is very high when they move bomb grade material in and out or around the Site. But if you drive through the state access highway on a Sunday morning when nothing is happening, you might be surprised what you find.”
When reporters for DCBureau arrived as scheduled for a second tour of SRS, they were greeted by a brisk show of military prowess that was clearly staged for their benefit. Camera bags were searched. Dogs sniffed the gear and ID’s were repeatedly checked. A few months earlier on a visit, a SRS contractor thought no such security precautions were necessary. Pilgrim said, “On your second visit they were putting on a show for you.” In fact, on the first visit when a reporter lost a security badge at the Defense Waste Processing Facility, where plutonium-laden high-level waste is melted into molten glass and placed in ten foot tall stainless cylinders, the reporter was simply sent unchallenged on to the next stop on the tour. It became apparent that security at SRS is based on a main gate check and each sensitive facility has another ID check at its perimeter. The problem is old radioactive waste dumps and other locations where dangerous material can be procured have no security protection.
Randy Garver insists the system works well and Wackenhut has the Site under control. Garver says that if there is an attack, he can activate the SRS emergency center and call Washington for help. Local and state authorities say they have done no real training with SRS officials on how to handle a terrorist attack at the facility. All say SRS tries to be helpful on community issues, but there are no instructions on how to notify and evacuate local citizens if there is a nuclear emergency.
Mike Pilgrim says the most important issue at SRS is penetration of the government or contractor workforce by someone who intends to do harm. Garver says he is reliant on the Department of Energy for his counterintelligence, but eventually they would bring in the FBI and state police.
For Garver, protecting SRS is also about money. When asked if the U.S. Army, which has a trained nuclear guard force, would be more effective he said, “I don’t see how the army could handle the protection at a lower rate…No army unit could do this as well as we do for an extended period of time. We keep our people forever. They love it here.” SRS records show the turnover rate among Wackenhut guards contradicts Garver’s assertion.
On a weekend, DCBureau reporters drove a rental car on the state highway that cuts across the huge site. Even though signs said not to stop, not to get out of the car, there was not a single security patrol in sight during the entire trip. Gates were left open on either side of the highway. It seemed like the entire Site was open to the public. Not far from where the security “dog and pony” show had been on full display a few days earlier, a gate that had been surrounded by security trucks with flashing lights and stern looking men in fatigues with automatic weapons now stood open, abandoned and unguarded. Mike Pilgrim is right. The security is based on time of day and who or what is coming to SRS.
Both the nun and the robbers penetrated DOE facilities on a Saturday.
Protective Force Guard
“They are putting their security into protecting weapons grade materials,” Pilgrim said. “The problem is if you get a couple of lunatics or terrorists who get on the grounds by working for a contractor, they could cause havoc. The total guard force at SRS is around 600 to 800. Now that is not every day. The actual guard force available is much smaller. Maybe 200 on a given day. They have a helicopter and expert marksman. But that does not do you any good with a suicide team. But let’s say a terrorist simply decides to end his life by setting an explosive charge in one of those tennis-court sized high-level waste tanks and sets off a hydrogen explosion that emits radiation everywhere. That would demand the attention of the entire guard force. While across the Site along the Savannah River, a trained team is moving on the K Area Material facility where the weapons grade plutonium is stored. You can imagine the chaos at the tank farms when the terrorist team has used this diversion to go for the plutonium.”
But Pilgrim is talking about rational terrorists who have the goal of getting bomb grade materials. A suicide team could have even more dire results. There is no ban on commercial aircraft over the Savannah River Site. While current maps do not show the location of the K Area Material facility, old maps show where the old K reactor stands. Even a small airliner or large private plane flown into the K Area Material building could cause a plutonium fire and fission flash that could unleash a level of radioactive contamination that has never before been experienced. DCBureau learned that the K Reactor was built to withstand the force of 1950s prop planes, not a 757 or jumbo jet filled with explosives or fuel.
According to nuclear experts, NNSA’s biggest fear is fire. Plutonium is a highly active element that can spontaneously combust under the right circumstances. The K Area Material facility is off limits to reporters. But DCBureau did find a top Government Accountability Office investigator who has toured K and who was escorted by a team carrying fire extinguishers because of the fear of spontaneous fire. “They told me before I went inside how unstable this stuff was and how it could combust on its own,” the investigator told DCBureau.
Dr. Edwin Lyman
If a terrorist successfully attacked the K Area Material facility, the most likely outcome would be a fission flash and a vast release in radiation which could potentially reach Washington, D.C., six hundred miles away, depending on the prevailing winds and amount of plutonium involved. Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists said the effects of a plutonium disaster would be profound. He said K Area Material “is not a good site for long term storage. The material, if dispersed, could cause serious issues. Worst case scenario: you could have a pretty serious area contaminated.”
Wackenhut manager Garver said, “The fact that it isn’t a no fly zone worries me but the buildings are really hard and if anything happened people would die but the material would be fine.” Dr. Lyman, when asked what would happen if a terrorist flew a plane into the K Area Material Storage facility, was not so reassuring: “If it led to a jet fuel fire, you could potentially have many plutonium canisters lose their contents. You would have a plume of plutonium oxide which could lead to extensive damage.”
As fast as the environmental contractors are paid to dig up and isolate high-level nuclear waste, the NNSA creates more of it each day. NNSA brings nuclear materials from other countries to SRS where it is blended down into civilian reactor fuel. The problem is there is always more deadly nuclear waste left behind creating even greater security issues. More worrisome is that the guard force has not increased as the Site even as it has effectively become America’s defacto high-level nuclear waste storage site with the abandonment of the Yucca Mountain storage facility in Nevada.
MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility
In addition, the NNSA’s multi-billion dollar Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication plant, under construction at SRS, is designed to convert plutonium from surplus nuclear weapons into MOX fuel rods for civilian reactors. Some of the vast amounts of plutonium and uranium being brought to the Site – around 34 tons – are supposed to be processed in the new French-designed MOX plant. This massive influx of weapons grade materials makes SRS an even bigger terrorist target, yet NNSA has not increased the security budget enough to counter the challenge of these new responsibilities.
The most important job for his guard force is to escort plutonium and other materials when they are moved inside the Site, according to Garver. NNSA hopes to remediate a massive amount of the weapons grade plutonium at SRS by bringing it from the K Area Material building to the new MOX plant. Working with the French-government-owned firm, AREVA, NNSA is attempting to find a civilian reactor partner to buy the fuel rods they hope will be produced at the MOX plant starting in 2018. The dangerous part is the plutonium needs to be separated and ground up into a very fine powder called plutonium oxide before it can be processed in the plant. No substance on earth is more deadly; nothing is more dangerous. A single inhaled particle will result in a fatal lung cancer. A small vial of this material could kill millions of people and “that makes it yet another target for terrorists,” according to Pilgrim.
The Savannah River Site is divided from Georgia by the Savannah River. Along its shore is 17 miles of land. A brief walk through the brush and swamps lead to the nuclear waste dumps and tens of millions of gallons of high level nuclear waste. One of the places that can be accessed from the river is the landing that leads to the K Area Material facility.
The planned MOX fuel rods present new dangers. “Should terrorists get a hold of a spent fuel, they would have a very dangerous and silent weapon. You see these rods burn hotter and are much more radioactive once they complete their fuel cycle in the reactor. They effectively are militarizing any reactor that burns MOX fuel. So if these fuel rods are going to be stored on commercial reactor sites which have even less security than SRS, the chance of a serious security breach not only increases, it becomes far more serious because these rods are so much more dangerous,” former DOE official Bob Alvarez said.
To Dr. Lyman, the dangers at SRS include the fact that plutonium is vulnerable to theft because it is easy to transport. Lyman says, “SRS needs to bolster its security to protect itself against possible terrorist attacks…These are not long term solutions, turning SRS into a long term depository is not safe.”
Bob Alvarez sees no easy security answers protecting the public from SRS. “They have processed less than one percent of the waste they have created there and the dangers will be around far beyond the ability of DOE to imagine.”
Mary Olson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service fears an attack on Savannah River could result in a plutonium fire that “could cause a huge release here in the U.S. …A nuclear accident has a beginning but it has no end.”
Joseph Trento has spent more than 35 years as an investigative journalist, working with both print and broadcast outlets and writing extensively. Before joining the National Security News Service in 1991, Trento worked for CNN’s Special Assignment Unit, the Wilmington News Journal, and prominent journalist Jack Anderson. Trento has received six Pulitzer nominations and is the author of five books, including Prelude to Terror, The Secret History of the CIA, Widows, and Prescription for Disaster. Joe currently serves as the editor of DCBureau.org.