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How an 82-Year-Old Nun Broke Into a Nuclear-Weapons Facility How an 82-Year-Old Nun Broke Into a Nuclear-Weapons Facility

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National Security

How an 82-Year-Old Nun Broke Into a Nuclear-Weapons Facility

October 9, 2012

This article was originally published in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

Correction: Rep. Turner's name was misspelled in the original National Journal version of this story.

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said on Tuesday he remains skeptical of claims that senior managers at the Y-12 National Security Complex were unaware of operational failings that enabled an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists to infiltrate the nuclear-weapons facility in July.

The National Nuclear Security Administration and its private manager for Y-12, Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services, “continue to maintain that senior leadership had no knowledge of any of the conditions of the failures," Turner said following a visit to the Tennessee site on Monday. “I expressed to them on-site that it is unfathomable and not credible that the systems would have had such repeated failures and have such great vulnerability and no one knew.”

 

A camera that would have recorded the trespass had not been in working order since early 2012, a report by the Energy Department’s inspector general found last month. In addition, there was a long waiting list of site security equipment in need of repair, according to the assessment.

The perpetrators were able to cut through multiple fence lines to reach the secured area that houses weapons-grade uranium and other nuclear-arms operations.

Since the break-in, NNSA officials and their contractor have taken various steps to address security concerns at Y-12. Babcock & Wilcox late last month said it would end an arrangement under which WSI-Oak Ridge, a division of G4S Government Solutions, handles protection duties at the site.

An NNSA spokesman said at the time that the decision to terminate the security firm's contract came “after the top leadership of WSI at Y-12 were removed and are no longer welcome at DOE sites, and the officers associated with the incident were fired, demoted, or suspended without pay." Joshua McConaha also noted that three federal officials with security-oversight jobs had been reassigned, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Energy Department officials have also cited other actions since the incident, including increasing the number of patrols at the site, and bringing in a security expert from its Pantex site in Texas.

Turner told reporters on Tuesday he was satisfied with efforts to investigate the matter and make necessary corrections at Y-12. In addition to the inspector general and internal contractor investigations, the DOE Health, Safety and Security Office was also reported to have completed a probe stemming from the break-in.

“I’m confident at this point that they’re pursuing the issue vigorously of holding senior management responsible, and we will see unfolding greater actions, I believe, as their investigation concludes,” Turner said. “They indicated there were investigations that were ongoing that would have the net result of holding people accountable. I’m comfortable that those investigations are proceeding vigorously.”

Turner also said he believed "that the security at Y-12 today is better than it's ever been" and that the "problems that existed the day of the intrusion have been addressed."

The lawmaker, chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, nonetheless questioned whether security concerns are being adequately addressed across the NNSA complex of nuclear-arms sites. The Obama administration has ordered all Energy Department installations housing atomic substances to formally verify that they are adhering to protective standards, according to news reports.

The lawmaker referenced a letter he recently sent to President Obama on the issue, along with legislation he introduced on Sept. 21 that would transfer security of nuclear-weapons manufacturing sites to the Defense Department.

The military “has the capabilities, training, and cultural mind-set needed to secure” the NNSA facilities, Turner has argued, but some skeptics have raised doubts over the legislation’s workability. A Reconstruction-era law limiting the powers of the armed forces on U.S. soil is one of several obstacles that could complicate Turner’s efforts, the critics have said.

Turner has also argued that language in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2013 that would remove the Energy Department's ability to oversee NNSA sites is justified by the Y-12 incident. Democrats and the Republican leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, meanwhile, have said that the break-in shows that the legislation is flawed and that the nuclear-weapons facilities need more DOE oversight, not less.

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