30 June 2015

How the next US nuclear accident could happen

Hugh Gusterson

Hugh Gusterson

Hugh Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and international affairs at George Washington University. His expertise is in nuclear culture, international security, and the anthropology of...


You learn a lot about a society from the way its accidents happen.

Safety analysts have found that Korean plane crashes were facilitated by a culture in which junior pilots do not challenge senior pilots, even when keeping quiet may result in their own deaths. Respect for elders, highly valued in Korean culture, can be a danger.

Meanwhile Sonja Schmid, in an excellent book on the 1986 Chernobyl disaster published earlier this year, has connected that fateful nuclear accident to a wider Soviet culture that insisted its own reactors not mimic American ones, and in which designers of nuclear power plants were siloed in a separate organization from the operators, whom they treated as a lesser breed with little need to understand in detail how their plants worked.

And what of the United States?

We can learn a lot about the potential for safety failures at US nuclear plants from the July 29, 2012, incident in which three religious activists broke into the supposedly impregnable Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Fort Knox of uranium. Once there, they spilled blood and spray painted “work for peace not war” on the walls of a building housing enough uranium to build thousands of nuclear weapons. They began hammering on the building with a sledgehammer, and waited half an hour to be arrested. If an 82-year-old nun with a heart condition and two confederates old enough to be AARP members could do this, imagine what a team of determined terrorists could do.

We have a detailed understanding of this incident thanks to energetic reporting by Frank Munger, Dan Zak, and, finally, a recent tour de force account in the New Yorker by Eric Schlosser, who has established himself as the premier reporter on nuclear accidents waiting to happen. Their cumulative reporting suggests that the Achilles’ heel of US nuclear safety culture lies in a fondness for automated security technologies, the delegation of government functions to private contractors, and a predilection for hollow facsimiles of effective audit procedures.

Where some other countries often rely more on guards with guns, the United States likes to protect its nuclear facilities with a high-tech web of cameras and sensors. Under the Nunn-Lugar program, Washington has insisted that Russia adopt a similar approach to security at its own nuclear sites—claiming that an American cultural preference is objectively superior. The Y-12 incident shows the problem with the American approach of automating security. At the Y-12 facility, in addition to the three fences the protestors had to cut through with wire-cutters, there were cameras and motion detectors. But we too easily forget that technology has to be maintained and watched to be effective. According to Munger, 20 percent of the Y-12 cameras were not working on the night the activists broke in. Cameras and motion detectors that had been broken for months had gone unrepaired. A security guard was chatting rather than watching the feed from a camera that did work. And guards ignored the motion detectors, which were so often set off by local wildlife that they assumed all alarms were false positives. (Hospital studies report, in the same vein, that nurses often ignore automated warnings of sudden dips in vital signs because so many are false positives).

Instead of having government forces guard the site, the Department of Energy had hired two contractors: Wackenhut and Babcock and Wilcox. Wackenhut is now owned by the British company G4S, which also botched security for the 2012 London Olympics, forcing the British government to send 3,500 troops to provide security that the company had promised but proved unable to deliver. Private companies are, of course, driven primarily by the need to make a profit, but there are surely some operations for which profit should not be the primary consideration.

Babcock and Wilcox was supposed to maintain the security equipment at the Y-12 site, while Wackenhut provided the guards. Poor communication between the two companies was one reason sensors and cameras were not repaired. Furthermore, Babcock and Wilcox had changed the design of the plant’s Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, making it a more vulnerable aboveground building, in order to cut costs. And Wackenhut was planning to lay off 70 guards at Y-12, also to cut costs.

Incidentally, we hear similar stories coming out of Los Alamos, where the private contractor responsible for packaging nuclear waste for the Waste Isolation Pilot Project put pressure on an undertrained workforce to pack as many barrels of nuclear waste as possible everyday, if necessary by cutting safety corners to maximize profit.

These are the hazards of outsourcing essential state security functions to private contractors: They prioritize profit and, like the Soviet bureaucratic organizations Sonja Schmid blames for Chernobyl, they often find it hard to work together.

The efficacy of Y-12 security procedures, and the diligence of the contractors superintending them, was supposed to be guaranteed by government audit procedures. But according to Schlosser,

“… security officers at Y-12 had been cheating on performance tests for years. Before responding to mock attacks, Wackenhut officers were told in advance which building at Y-12 would be targeted, which wall of the building would be attacked, and whether their adversaries would use diversionary tactics … Before the tests, members of the security force allegedly disabled their Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System gear—removing the batteries, inserting the batteries backward, covering the laser sensors with tape or Vaseline —so that during a simulated gunfight they could not be ‘shot.’ Failing a performance test might reduce Wackenhut’s fee from the government.”

The United States loves to use statistical metrics and audit procedures to decide which teachers and principals at public schools should be fired or retained, which professors should be given the biggest raises, who qualifies for a mortgage and so on. But audit procedures can be gamed. We have recently learned that school teachers changed their pupils’ answers on standardized tests, that the mortgage industry enabled the falsification of applications, and that middle managers at the Veterans Administration faked information on veterans’ waiting time for treatment in order to have good-looking audits. Much beloved by graduates of our MBA programs, audits are too often Potemkin reviews cooked up to offer a false sense of security.

This time the nuclear facility was broken into by highly principled peace activists intent on symbolically spilling their own blood to make a point. Next time the intruders may be more malevolent, intending to spill others’ blood. If there is a next time, be prepared for an inquiry that shows a misplaced faith in automated security technology, private contractors cutting corners to make a buck, and government managers astonished that their reviews didn’t catch the problem.