Illegal immigrant construction workers access nuke site

Sixteen illegal immigrants who slid through security at a nuclear weapons site in Tennessee last year could cost subcontractors their right to self-certify the citizenship of employees working at sensitive national security locations, officials said Wednesday.

Steve Wyatt, spokesperson for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said an investigation by NNSA and nuclear operations management company BWX Technologies confirmed “un-cleared” construction workers accessed the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oakridege, Tenn.

“Only U.S. citizens are permissible to work at the site, but the 16 workers went through the visitor’s office as un-cleared visitors,” he said. “They weren’t escorted, so when they filled out their visitor’s card they checked that they were ‘U.S. citizens.'”

The U.S. government now requires all Y-12 workers and visitors to provide birth certificates or passports along with other background information, a system that no longer allows subcontractors the final word on a worker’s citizenship, Wyatt said. The previous process required subcontractors to provide these documents for themselves, but allowed them to vouch for the U.S. citizenship of their employees. Wyatt said he considers the new system a help to subcontractors rather than a penalty.

“The subcontractors are still responsible for their workers,” he said.

Wyatt said none of the 16 foreign workers had access to areas with classified information, but when NNSA turned its investigation over to the Department of Energy’s Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman last year, an audit proved the foreign contractors did have access to “unclassified controlled nuclear info” and “official-use-only documents.” The inspector general’s report was released June 20. Friedman wrote that DOE was concerned about allowing “the subcontractor to self-certify the citizenship status of their employees,” and considered the incident “a potentially serious access control and security problem.”

The Y-12 facility where the unprotected documents were found was temporarily shut down until security was more strictly enforced, the report said, and the immigrants’ cases were turned over to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Some sites the National Nuclear Security Administration oversees allow subcontractors to hire immigrants with legitimate green cards, but Wyatt said those rules never applied to Y-12.

“You’re either a U.S. citizen or you’re not,” Wyatt said to refute reports that Y-12 accepted workers with green cards. “Security is heightened now for visitors at Y-12, but it never employed any of the 4,700 workers without a birth certificate or passport.”

Y-12 is managed and operated by BWXT and has over 500 buildings, Wyatt said. The site was used in World War II to make nuclear bombs, and since then has been used to make parts for nuclear warheads. Y-12 is now the country’s principal storehouse for weapons-grade uranium.

To combat further security mishaps, Glenn Podonsky, director of DOE’s Office of Security and Safety Performance Assurance, wrote to the inspector general that by October 2005 her organization would require several forms of identification to prove citizenship and identity and a national agency check prior to issuance of an access badge with a “smart” electronic chip at facilities like Y-12. She wrote that the organization would also seek methods to prosecute violators who falsely claim US citizenship or use false documents.

The Office of Independent and Oversight Performance Assurance is currently inspecting Y-12 for the effectiveness of its new access control measures, and will issue a final report in July, Podonsky wrote.