OIG: 6,400 Foreigners Had Access to Nuclear Lab’s Restricted Areas

Alissa Tabirian | October 7, 2013 | 5:20pm EDT
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Oak Ridge National Laboratory complex in Tennessee. (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – As many as 6,400 foreign visitors from China, India, Egypt, Pakistan, and other countries were allowed “unaccompanied access to numerous buildings” at a nuclear lab in Tennessee that is “the nation’s central repository for bomb-grade uranium” and is currently working on a $10 billion project to refurbish hundreds of aging B61 "bunker buster" bombs.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) also conducts sensitive research on drones and early warning systems to detect chemical and biological warfare, according to an Office of Inspector General report released last month.

Each visiting foreigner is given a site-specific individual security plan that lays out in detail where they may go accompanied by their American host. But “7 of the 16 hosts we interviewed did not maintain contact with foreign nationals during their entire stay,” the OIG reported, warning that "these issues have the potential to increase Oak Ridge's security risk that sensitive information and national security assets could potentially be lost or compromised."

“There was no assurance that hosts appropriately monitored foreign nationals’ activities as required,” the report added. Some who were given free rein in the nuclear facility had not even been checked against The Department of Energy’s Foreign Access Central Tracking System (FACTS) prior to their arrival in the U.S.

Although the audit did not find any instances in which “scientific information was inappropriately obtained by a foreign national, the risk that these events could occur is higher than acceptable because of the weaknesses in Oak Ridge’s program,” the OIG report said. It also noted that lab employees “did not conduct walk-downs of each foreign national’s work area to ensure that there was no export controlled equipment or technology in the area.”

A spokesperson for ORNL, which is run by DOE, told CNSNews that “the official number of foreign visitors approved to visit ORNL in calendar year 2012 was 7,706.” Most of the visitors were from China (1,760), India (784), and Japan (517). Another 45 came from Egypt, 14 were from Pakistan, and 11 from Saudi Arabia.

DOE directives require certain areas and equipment at the lab to be off-limits to visitors. The contractor host is supposed to “be responsible for the activities associated with the successful completion of the foreign national’s assignment,” including monitoring their activities and whereabouts, ORNL personnel told CNSNews.

However, the Inspection Report, which examined operations at Oak Ridge from January 2012 to September 2013, found that “foreign nationals were provided unaccompanied access to numerous buildings.”

American hosts reported that they were uncomfortable being responsible for foreign nationals they were unable to monitor or even maintain daily contact with. However, they were told by Oak Ridge managers that “performing host functions were required as part of their position,” auditors reported.

An unarmed B61 tactical nuclear bomb is displayed at the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas in 2005. (AP photo)

The IG report “identified two hosts who had 185 separate foreign nationals assigned to them in fiscal year 2011. In one example, a host was assigned 46 foreign nationals during a single visit,” adding that “the hosts did not monitor” their activities. In another case, “a foreign national arrived and departed while the host was absent from Oak Ridge.”

Not all of the lab’s 300 buildings are accessible to visitors, two-thirds of whom are researchers. Other visitors coordinate meetings and tech transfers, and are responsible for “mission support services such as equipment installation or repairs.”

However, “hosts informed us that foreign nationals had been provided access to approximately 20 buildings, some with 24-hour access, for over 2 years,” the audit revealed. Moreover, “only 8 of 1,400 trained hosts had been audited” since 2011 in accordance with the Oak Ridge Host Audit Program.

Oak Ridge was founded to “usher in the nuclear age” during World War II’s Manhattan Project. Managed by contractor UT-Battelle, LLC, it currently employs 4,400 individuals and hosts 3,000 guest scientists each year who conduct research in nuclear nonproliferation and develop advanced technologies for U.S. intelligence. Some of the lab’s work for the Department of Defense includes “advanced sensor technology,” “early warning systems for chemical and biological threats,” and “unmanned air, ground and sea systems.”

The Inspector General’s recommendations included a reevaluation of “whether all foreign nationals to the user facilities should be provided access to multiple buildings” and the establishment of “a robust Host Audit Program.”

Management concurred with the recommendations, even though previous audits highlighted similar issues with unaccompanied foreign nationals that have still not been resolved.  For example, a May 2009 inspection found that “eight pieces of Secret/Restricted Data media . . . were not subject to all required protections and controls.”

An August 2010 audit found that the lab was not effectively tracking “hard drives which potentially contain sensitive unclassified information,” and noted that hard drives were recovered “from unsecure locations, such as unoccupied offices, hallways, and docks,” while “hard drives were missing from 424 computers, of which 193 had been used to process information in sensitive program areas.”

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