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A “no trespassing” sign outside the Pantex facility in Amarillo, Tex. (itjournalist/Flickr)

A culture of cheating pervades the guard force at America’s premier processing and storage site for nuclear weapons-grade uranium, according to a new report this week by the Energy Department’s inspector general.

Contract officers and supervisors of the force at the Y-12 plant outside Knoxville, Tennessee, shared advance copies of test materials with patrolmen, said inspector general Gregory H. Friedman, rendering their responses unreliable. But he put the blame squarely on the Energy Department for mismanaging the facility’s operations.

The abuses he cited are not new. Eight years ago, Friedman blew the whistle on even worse cheating by the Y-12 guard force, disclosing that for years they obtained advance word of mock assaults meant to test their capabilities, and carefully redeployed their forces to produce impressive but faked results.

But this time, Friedman suggested the problem was not isolated. A contract official who works both at Y-12 and another “high-security DOE” site told Friedman’s staff that the official “had taken similar actions” to share written test materials in advance with the managers of that site’s guard force, his report stated.

Friedman’s report did not name the second site, but two government officials confirmed it is the sensitive facility known as Pantex, in Amarillo, Tex., the government’s principal factory for assembling, taking apart, and storing plutonium triggers for its nuclear arsenal. As a result, the reliability of the protective force for key components of that arsenal in two locations can now be considered open to question.

The cheating at Y-12 was discovered by accident four weeks after a group of peace activists, including an 82-year old nun, penetrated security fences surrounding the half-billion dollar Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility, in late July. A special test of the guard force was then organized, but it was suspended in late August when a visiting Energy Department official noticed a copy of written test questions in a patrol vehicle at Y-12.

How the test got into the hands of the guards reads like a tale from middle school. As Friedman explained in his 14-page report, the guards there got advance copies of the test from their superiors at the contractor that provided site security, WSI-Oak Ridge, who in turn got it from an official at Babcock and Wilcox Technical Services Y-12, LLC, the main contractor responsible for all the operations there.

That person, in turn, got it from an official in the Energy Department’s Health, Safety and Security Office, who had asked the contractor to review it for “accuracy.”

What should one do when the teacher finds an advance copy of a school exam in one’s hands just as the test is getting under way? Several dozen WSI-Oak Ridge employees interviewed by Friedman’s inspectors said they thought it was given out as a study guide, prompting him to write drily that he “found the credibility of this testimony to be questionable.”

One reason is that the word “TEST” appears in bold letters on the header on the first page, a fact that guard supervisors improbably claimed they never noticed, Friedman said. Another reason is that a WSI-Oak Ridge official, when circulating the test questions to colleagues, noted in an e-mail that it “would not be a good idea … for a [police officer] to have these in hand during an audit.”

The unnamed official stripped that phraseology — which suggested some foreknowledge of wrongdoing — from a copy of his email before handing it over to investigators, according to Friedman’s report. He was subsequently fired by WSI-Oak Ridge, the report added.

Circulating copies of key tests in advance to the contractor and employees responsible for ensuring that such a vital site is adequately protected against terrorism was “inexplicable and inexcusable,” Friedman concluded. “Security of the Nation’s most sensitive nuclear material storage and processing facilities must not be left to chance.”

But as his report makes clear, DOE has done it for years, as part of a culture of treating contractors as “Trusted Agents” whose advice is solicited under a set of carefully-drawn rules. It’s all part of what the department calls its “eyes on, hands off” approach to the major nuclear weapons sites, a laid-back style of overseeing contract work in which DOE officials are not burdened with the responsibility of knowing how things should be done and are barred by their agreements with the contractors from saying so even if they did know.

Alas, DOE rules for Trusted Agents did not explicitly discuss how far contract officials could go in the sharing of tests, as the department’s safety office and the contractor said in their reply to Friedman — a problem that has since been fixed.

But the DOE office that handed over the test to Babcock and Wilcox rebuffed Friedman’s complaint that the Energy Department is too wedded to the concept of asking its nuclear weapons contractors , which collectively receive billions of dollars annually, to decide what constitutes appropriate contract behavior.

“We agree that using contractors as trusted agents should be minimized where possible, and we have already changed our inspection practices” regarding the rules for test copies, but “there are circumstances where it is necessary to have a contractor act as a trusted agent in order to ensure the safe and effective testing of site security performance,” said Glenn S. Padonsky, the department’s chief health, safety, and security officer.

Thomas D’Agostino, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration retained by Obama from the Bush administration, said in his own written response that “the issue is not the release of the testing material to the contractor’s Trusted Agents, but the abuse of discretion…on the Contractor’s part” when the tests were shared more widely. He rejected the relevance of Friedman’s suggestion that the government should actually rely on “Federal officials who are knowledgeable of contractor operations,” and recommended that his critical mention of the “eyes on, hands off” oversight approach be dropped.

Friedman, who has been in his post since the Clinton administration, refused.

Accountability for the current mess remains elusive. No audit has been done of the Pantex guard force operations, even though Friedman’s report suggests “a parallel issue” there, as one of the government officials described it. “They did the same thing.” A spokesman for Pantex did not return our phone calls.

After the break-in at Y-12 by the nun, WSI-Oak Ridge was fired as the security contractor, but Babcock and Wilcox subsequently offered to rehire all of its guard staff, and just about everyone accepted, according to Babcock spokeswoman Ellen Boatner. This group presumably included at least some of the guards that Friedman’s previous report accused of reacting poorly to the break-in.

Asked if this transferred group also included those who Friedman’s report said had lied about the cheating, Boatner said she did not know who was interviewed and could not address that issue. She also said she would look into who it was at Babcock and Wilcox that admitted sharing advance copies of tests with guards at Pantex, but did not call back.

A government official, asked if that unnamed contract employee was still working for Babcock’s Y-12 operation, said he was.

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R. Jeffrey Smith worked for 25 years in a series of key reporting and editorial roles at The Washington...