18 months after security breach, former nuclear weapons plant boss tells his story

Former Y-12 boss says security breach at heavily protected facilited was a 'big surprise'

Feb. 17--As a result of the July 28, 2012, break-in at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, some prized possessions were lost.

Y-12 lost its reputation as the government's impenetrable fortress in Oak Ridge, and three protesters, who were convicted of sabotage and destruction of federal property, lost their freedom.

Darrel Kohlhorst lost his job.

In a sit-down interview at last week's Nuclear Deterrence Summit outside Washington, D.C., the former Y-12 boss talked with the News Sentinel about the events of 18 months ago and, for the first time, how it all came apart.

"Knowing the security that we have at Y-12 and how good it was, the fact that there could have been any penetration was really a big surprise," he said. "I mean, that was a real shocker."

Three anti-nuclear activists, including an 82-year-old nun, cut through a perimeter fence in the dark of night, scaled a heavily wooded ridge and entered the plant from the north side. They cut through three more security fences, loaded with sensors and cameras associated with the plant's supposedly top-notch detection system, and walked directly to the storage facility for bomb-grade uranium, which they splashed with human blood and decorated with crime-scene tape and spray-painted messages.

After the fact, the critical reviews of Y-12 security were scathing.

Investigators with the Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General found weaknesses or failures everywhere they looked, including "troubling displays of ineptitude" in responding to security alarms. Then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the Y-12 break-in was an "unacceptable and deeply troubling breach." At a congressional hearing on the incident, U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Nebraska, called it an "unprecedented breakdown" and "all-out failure," and U.S. Rep Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, thanked Sister Megan Rice -- one of the Plowshares protesters who was in attendance -- for "bringing out the inadequacies of our security system."

Kohlhorst acknowledged there were "several failures" at Y-12 that allowed such an intrusion to take place.

"I think that the plant has learned a lot from that situation and what happened ... and made a lot of really significant changes," he said, "and some very good changes."

But he didn't necessarily agree with all of the reports on Y-12 security.

"Some of them I looked at and, to me, it's always Monday night quarterbacking," he said. "I think it's pretty easy (to be critical after the fact). The thing I will say is that the security force at Y-12 had done stellar on all of the performance tests."

Kohlhorst noted there had been some security problems at Y-12 in the early 2000s.

"I remember (then-General Manager) Dennis Ruddy dealing with some of those issues, and it was a really very difficult issue, and our security rating was very low."

After that, however, strong actions were taken both by B&W Y-12, the managing contractor at the Oak Ridge plant, and by Wackenhut, then the security contractor, Kohlhorst said. Y-12 subsequently received high ratings on all security evaluations, including force-on-force exercises, up until the big breach, he said.

Kohlhorst came to Oak Ridge when B&W took over management of Y-12 in 2000, initially heading the plant's manufacturing division for the contractor and later assuming other executive roles. He became president and general manager in early 2008.

It wasn't a surprise that the top executive in an organization would lose his job after such a devastating event. Government/contractor relationships, especially in the nuclear weapons complex, are not forgiving.

He knew the perils of the position, and he talked about it with his employees.

"I used to have a lot of all-hands meetings where we would talk about what we were doing at Y-12 and what was really important -- the mission, security and safety -- and I can remember on many, many occasions telling these people that my job depended on each and every one of them doing theirs. ... And so I knew that going into the job."

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