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Critics Take Aim at Oak Ridge Nuclear Plant

August 18, 2004

The sound of a machine gun rips through the woods near the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, a warhead parts factory and uranium storehouse that has been criticized for lax security.

A security patrol officer is running through a firing range exercise with tow instructors deep within the Department of Energy's 33,000 acre Oak Ridge Reservation.

Wearing black fatigues, flak vest and gas mask, he hits the ground and unleashes a blast from an M249 assault weapon at distant targets.

'"Yeah, we had some issues," said Jean "John" Burleson, whose 400-plus contractor guard force at Y-12 as accused of cheating on performance drills in an inspector general's report in January.

"But make no mistake about it. If you attack us, we are still capable of kicking your a--," the Wackenhut Services Inc. executive said.

Peter Stockton, a consultant for Project on Government Oversight, a Washington based public watchdog group, is not convinced.

"We have a bunch of sources down there, from guards to management, and nobody is happy with what is going on," Stockton said. "They don't believe the improvements are really adequate."

Bill Brumley, the Y-12 site manager for DOE's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, knows the criticism. Congress grilled him and others about it behind closed doors earlier this year.

The Y-12 National Security Complex is a 4,700-employee, 811-acre compound of 700 mostly aging brick and concrete block buildings 20 miles west of Knoxville. It's been described as the last full-scale nuclear weapons production facility in the United States, though DOE says it doesn't make nuclear weapons, just refurbishes old ones.

The plant was created in the 1940's enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in World War II. Today, it makes parts for every warhead in the nuclear arsenal and is the country's primary repository for bomb-grade uranium.

Y-12's ability to defeat terrorists wanting to steal its bomb-making materials, set-off "dirty bomb" to spread radioactivity, or create an "improvised nuclear device" in it's uranium vaults is a sensitive subject.

Over the past year, Y-12 officials say the plant has stiffened its defenses and extended its guarded perimeter.

Front-gate barriers were beefed up and low-level radioactive waste boxes as large as commercial trash bins, topped with razor-wire, were chained together to form a 1,500 foot barricade outside the uranium processing buildings.

Guards are getting new firepower, such as the M249, and training on a remote-controlled machine gun system that operates with a videogame-like joystick. Officials won't say when the remote-controlled system will be deployed. Y-12 would be Doe's first site.