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Nuclear Facility Security System Implicated in Nun Break-In Now Fixed

Department of Energy/AP File Photo

A $52 million security system for a Tennessee nuclear weapons complex was completed early and under budget, Energy Department officials announced on Monday, despite performance failures that contributed to a 2012 break-in by an 82-year-old nun.

The National Nuclear Security Administration initiative initially was expected to finish in June and cost $72 million. 

The "Security Improvement Project" -- which began about a decade ago -- replaced access controls at the Tennessee-based Y-12 center with a government-developed, departmentwide personnel entry system. 

NNSA reportedly fired contractors working on the project a few months after the nun and two other peace activists breached the site on July 28, 2012. The trio cut perimeter fences to reach the outer wall of a building where enriched uranium was stored, according to Reuters

"Despite what appears to have been a slow crawl through the defenses (the three had bolt cutters, hammers, flashlights and cans of spray paint, and went under the fences), they did not draw a prompt response. In the past, security officers at the site have complained that alarms go off frequently, triggered by raccoons and deer," The New York Times reported.

A late 2012 "unsatisfactory" NNSA evaluation of contractor performance on the access control project provides further insights into what went wrong. 

"The completely unacceptable implementation and operation of the Argus system" contributed to the rating, according to the audit. Argus "has created significant hindrance to operations."

The number of maintenance requests increased because of the project, Argus and antiquated security systems, so employees were spread thin, according to NNSA.

The report stated, "The increased work with limited availability of technicians resulted in increased time for equipment to be brought back into service and extended duration of applicable compensatory measures (i.e. the PIDAS camera out associated with the July 28th event)," referring to a camera outage on the perimeter intrusion and detection alarm system. 

Despite operations issues, according to NNSA, during the past three years, 7 percent of the agency’s $725 million information technology portfolio came in under budget. The cost-savings prompted federal auditors to remove NNSA from the Government Accountability Office's "high risk" project list

The agency's acting Chief of Defense Nuclear Security Michael Lempke said in a statement on Monday that the security project "is a continuation of NNSA’s goal to use the best, most modern security technology to keep the nation’s nuclear weapons and material secure.”

NNSA Associate Administrator for Acquisition and Project Management Bob Raines added that the system "is yet another example that final metrics of cost and schedule can be achieved when clear expectations are set, the federal and contractor site and headquarters teams are aligned, and all parties accept accountability for their role in project delivery.”

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