In June 2014, a worker at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee was surprised to find U.S. nuclear secrets inside a trash bag marked for disposal along with standard rubbish. Taking a closer look, the worker found 19 more documents in the bag that were either marked classified or were later determined to contain information that should have been labeled secret.
A dozen more bags of trash sat nearby, awaiting transport to an open landfill where Y-12 workers routinely dump garbage with no bearing on national security. When employees of Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services, Y-12, LLC, the contractor responsible for running the site at that time, poked inside two of these additional bags, they found more top-secret documents.
“(They) then decided not to search any additional containers because they were, given the prior results, presumed likely to contain additional classified information,” a preliminary notice of violation issued Feb. 2 by the Energy Department’s enforcement arm said.
Many of the records discovered that day detailed how the department’s employees and contractors worked with nuclear explosive materials, such as highly enriched uranium, housed at the Y-12 complex. But it quickly got worse: Further investigation by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees such work, led officials to conclude that nuclear secrets had been thrown away with lax security at the Tennessee plant for more than 20 years.
Many of the workers investigators interviewed mistakenly believed the waste was trucked off to a dump approved for disposal of classified material and guarded to prevent theft. Since 2005, they were transported by a truck driver without clearances to an unprotected landfill; before then, it’s unclear where they went, but the report says that no special precautions were taken even then for discarding the classified material.
Protection of nuclear materials and secrets at Y-12 has been under scrutiny since July 28, 2012, when an 82-year-old nun and two more peace protestors penetrated the security perimeter and advanced far enough to scrawl graffiti on a storage vault full of weapon-grade nuclear materials.
The guard force responsible during the 2012 security breach at Y-12 had faked its way through proficiency drills by obtaining details of mock sieges in advance, according to a report by the Energy Department’s Office of Inspector General.
Los Alamos’ violation involved the disappearance of unspecified classified matter that was supposed to be shipped to another nuclear site in Nevada, but five years later hadn’t arrived. Contractor staff at Los Alamos told investigators the item had probably been destroyed, but the NNSA regarded the explanation as implausible, and the mysterious item remains missing.