Security at European bases where U.S. tactical nuclear weapons are stored has tightened in recent years, heightening confidence that they would not be vulnerable to intrusions of the kind seen at a Tennessee atomic facility in July, an Air Force general said on Tuesday.
“We’re not just looking at it; we’re doing something,” said Maj. Gen. William Chambers, the service’s assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration.
Recent upgrades “run the gamut from perimeter security measures to sensors to better equipping,” he said. “And those are part of a pretty long-range plan to make enhancements.”
He did not elaborate on detailed objectives for the security improvements or when all of them would be completed.
Though security enhancements have been under way for some time at these allied installations, the justification for upgrades was underscored in July when three peace activists infiltrated the highly sensitive “Protected Area” at the Energy Department’s Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., officials say.
The protesters, including an 82-year-old nun, cut through three perimeter fences and reportedly defaced with human blood the wall of a facility containing highly enriched uranium, a material used in nuclear warheads. Detecting the intruders’ presence was hampered by a broken security camera and alarms that were switched off.
The Energy Department’s inspector general last month rebuked Y-12 security for failing to more quickly apprehend the trespassers, who ultimately walked up to guards and surrendered.
Similar infiltrations by activists have occurred in recent years at European nuclear bases. Members of a Belgian organization, Peace Action, said in 2010 it had repeatedly breached perimeter security at Kleine Brogel Air Base, northeast of Brussels.
Those included one videotaped incident in which activists, wandering on base for about an hour before being confronted by an unarmed guard, identified what they believed to be storage locations for U.S. B-61 bombs.
“The decision to do something [to increase security] was actually made before that event,” Chambers said in a Tuesday interview in National Harbor, Md. “That event simply reinforced the need. But at that point, the money had already been committed.”
U.S. and allied military officials view penetration by protesters as an alarming indication of the access terrorists might gain if security is not seriously bolstered.
Roughly five years ago, NATO nations with a role in the alliance’s nuclear deterrence strategy agreed to initiate and fund a plan to enhance security at each atomic-weapons location, Chambers said.
Many of the technical and operational changes flowing from that allied commitment have since been made and the improvements continue to be implemented, he said.
Chambers, who was steeped in the effort to bolster base security in his previous assignment as vice commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, now tracks the nuclear-base changes from his post at the Pentagon.
The two-star general said the Air Force nuclear weapons community was closely monitoring details of the recent attacks on U.S. embassies and other facilities in a number of Mideast and African nations.
As with any security crisis that risks spilling over to U.S. military installations, “commanders are alerted to threats routinely,” Chambers said. “Lessons learned are shared, not just between bases but between [U.S.] departments.”
Specifically, he said, following the Y-12 intrusion, the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration has informed the Defense Department about facility vulnerabilities it has identified in an effort to close any such gaps across the atomic weapons complex.