OAK RIDGE, Tenn. -- Staccato bursts of a machine gun rip 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 two 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 was 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 [expletive]," 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," said Stockton, who was special assistant to former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.
Bill Brumley, the Y-12 site manager for DOE's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, knows the criticism. But he said he can't say much publicly about security improvements without creating new vulnerabilities.
"I will be upset if anybody tells you we are satisfied with security," Brumley told The Associated Press. "But we believe, in fact, it is secure."
The Y-12 National Security Complex is a 4,700-employee, 811-acre compound 20 miles west of Knoxville. The plant was created in the 1940s to enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb dropped on 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 -- tons and tons of it.
Y-12's ability to defeat terrorists wanting to steal its bomb-making material, set off a "dirty bomb" to spread radioactivity, or create an "improvised nuclear device" in its uranium vaults is a sensitive subject.
Oak Ridge's congressman refused to talk about it. So did the Energy Department's inspector general.
DOE-Oak Ridge spokesman Steven Wyatt said the Y-12 security force will undergo a series of tests over the next six months "for both training and performance evaluation." No details will be released.
Over the past year, Y-12 officials say the plant has stiffened its defenses and extended its guarded perimeter. Keyless locks, diskless computer work stations and iris scanners were being installed.
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.
"They still have terrible overtime problems. They are not training adequately now because of the overtime and they don't have adequate weapons. Other than that they are in great shape," Stockton said.
Overtime is down since a dramatic jump after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but Burleson acknowledged some guards still work 72 hours a week. The average is around 55 hours.
Training occurs daily, he said. It can be one-on-one or in groups. It can be at their posts or in Oak Ridge's central training facility, where classrooms and the firing range are located.
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 systems will be deployed. Y-12 would be DOE's first site.
But U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, who chairs a congressional subcommittee on national security, emerging threats and international relations, told the AP that "just adding gates, guns and guards" isn't enough.
"Faced with the new security imperative to deny access, not just contain or catch intruders, it goes without saying DOE has too many facilities housing nuclear materials," the Connecticut Republican said.
"And many of those facilities, like Y-12, are old, above ground, poorly configured and in cluttered World War II era designs," said Shays, who has toured Y-12.
To that end, DOE is trying to reduce Y-12's footprint and consolidate its stockpile.
Site work has begun on a $250 million fortress-like storage building for Y-12's highly enriched uranium, now held in six locations. Originally designed as an underground bunker, the building is now planned above ground with completion expected in 2007 or 2008.
Meanwhile, BWXT continues to tear down decrepit Y-12 buildings -- more than 100 buildings containing more than 100,000 square feet so far.
Also, DOE is in the early stages of planning another new high-security building for all of Y-12's weapons processing work. It would be next to the new uranium vaults.
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said recently that he wants Y-12's uranium stockpile reduced by 100 tons, converting bomb material into fuel for commercial power or research reactors.
Said Brumley: "Y-12 has been, is and will always be one of the most secure facilities in this country."
On the Net:
Y-12 nuclear weapons plant: http://www.y12.doe.gov/bwxt/