The Y-12 Nuclear Development Site Has Deployed Its First Anti-Drone System

The deployment at Y-12 shows how seriously the DOE and other federal departments and agencies are beginning to take the drone threat.

Y-12 No Drone Zone
DOE/Public Domain

To help protect against the rising threat of drone incursions above sensitive infrastructure, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Office of Defense Nuclear Security (DNS) has deployed its first counter-unmanned aircraft system (C-UAS) at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It’s unclear exactly what that system consists of, but it is described as being able to “detect, identify, and track potentially malicious UAS threats.” 

Note, however, that the description does not include any mention of being able to actually neutralize or disable drones that the system detects. Nevertheless, the system is described as being able to "counter all unauthorized unmanned aircraft systems" in Y-12's airspace, so it remains possible that the system may include more robust defenses to bring down any potentially hostile drones it detects and that those details aren't being disclosed. The NNSA is known to not divulge more information than it has to about its operations, to say the least.

In a press release, Teresa Robbins of the NNSA Production Office (NPO), which oversees Y-12, said the new C-UAS system was deployed to help mitigate the threat posed by potential drone incursions. “The National Nuclear Security Administration Production Office is announcing this deployment and the airspace restriction to the public to minimize the threat of unauthorized UAS flights over Y-12. This will enhance our ability to effectively protect this vital national security facility,” Robbins said. 

The Y-12 facility oversees nuclear maintenance and production tasks such as the storage, processing, and manufacturing of uranium and the production of raw uranium products for use in U.S. Navy vessels. In addition, Y-12 helps support international nuclear nonproliferation programs. 

DOE

The Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

The Department of Energy (DOE) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) previously announced in 2017 that drone operations are prohibited within 400 feet of the boundaries of several DOE facilities including Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Y-12 National Security Site. 

It’s unknown if the deployment of the new anti-drone system at Y-12 is in response to specific incidents or if the facility is merely following recent federal guidance aimed at meeting the drone threat head-on. However, Steven Wyatt, public affairs manager for the NNSA, responded to inquiries for details from local news outlets that the administration is “not at liberty to discuss any incidents involving suspected drone overflights at Y-12.”

The FAA’s UAS Sightings Report database contains 13 drone sightings in the Knoxville, Tennessee area between 2015 and 2020. The Y-12 facility lies some 20 miles to the west of Knoxville, separated from the city by the Clinch River. Of those 13 reports, at least four were reported west of Knoxville, in the direction of Oak Ridge. One such report reads:

PRELIM INFO FROM FAA OPS: KNOXVILLE, TN/UAS INCIDENT/0928E/KNOXVILLE ATCT ADVISED DIAMOND DA40, MBT - TYS, REPORTED A SMALL UAS 500 FEET OFF THE RIGHT WING WHILE NE BOUND AT 4,000 FEET 8 NW TYS. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. KNOXVILLE COUNTY DISPATCH NOTIFIED.

According to documents released by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to friend of The War Zone Douglas D. Johnson, there were 57 drone incursion incidents reported above nuclear facilities between December 2014 to October 2019. In 49 out of those 57 cases, the NRC reported the incidents as "Closed Unresolved," meaning the drones' operators were never identified. Some of the nuclear facilities that reported drone sightings include Limerick Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania, Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Ohio, Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California, and Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station outside of Phoenix, the site of a deeply troubling "drone-a-palooza" that you can read our exclusive reporting on here. In addition to nuclear power plants, some of the drone incursions reported by the NRC were above spent nuclear fuel storage sites.

DOE

A waste management facility at Y-12

While the exact details of Y-12’s C-UAS system are unknown, some of the details released to the public seem to follow anti-drone guidelines issued by the DHS in 2020. For one, the plant is installing “No Drone Zone” signage around its perimeter in order to educate the public about the airspace restrictions in place, as well as creating social media outreach with the same message. "NNSA welcomes assistance from the local community and UAS operators to help ensure the safety and protection of the Y-12 site and its personnel from unauthorized UAS activities," Y-12’s press release states. Both of those policies were mentioned specifically by the DHS’s “Protecting Against the Threat of Unmanned Aerial Systems” report.

CISA.gov

Drone security considerations recommended by the DHS's “Protecting Against the Threat of Unmanned Aerial Systems” report.

The NNSA has previously deployed counter-drone systems at other critical DOE sites such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “We needed a system to counter threats ranging from on-site disruption by protestors to intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance of NNSA sites, plants, and labs,” Lewis Monroe, the NNSA’s Director of Security Operations and Programmatic Planning, said about the Los Alamos anti-drone system at the time. Like at Los Alamos, protests against American nuclear activities have previously been held at Y-12, so it's possible that these were taken into consideration when deploying the new drone system in addition to broader security concerns.

The announcement about the new anti-drone system at the Y-12 National Security Complex is but the latest in a long string of developments that show the U.S. federal government and Department of Defense (DOD) are taking steps to address the growing threat posed by small drones. Aside from above critical nuclear facilities, drone incursions have been reported in military training areas, around anti-ballistic missile installations, as well as in mass sightings over populated civilian areas

Small drones have even been weaponized specifically for targeting energy infrastructure, as was the case in 2019 when the world's largest oil processing facility was hit by a devastating drone attack, resulting in a significant drop in global oil production. While kinetic threats remain a major concern, low-end drones' ability to collect intelligence, including on wireless networks at a certain location, is also a serious issue.

With the addition of this new anti-drone system at Y-12, the DOE and NNSA are now demonstrating just how seriously they are taking the threat of small drones. Given that U.S. military leaders have declared the United States no longer has air superiority for the first time in seven decades specifically due to the now-widespread use of small- and medium-sized drones by a whole range of enemy actors, the drone threat is proving itself to be one of the most serious security issues of our time. 

Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com