WASHINGTON — A breach in which an 82-year-old nun and two other protesters sneaked into a Tennessee nuclear weapons plant last year is "completely unacceptable" and an "important wake-up call" for the government, the head of an agency charged with safeguarding the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile said Wednesday.
Neile Miller, acting administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said security of nuclear materials is the Energy Department most important responsibility, adding: "There is no tolerance for federal or contractor personnel who cannot or will not do their jobs."
Miller told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday that officials have taken "decisive action" since the July incident at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, including a new management team and a new defense security chief to oversee all NNSA sites.
"The severity of the failure of leadership at Y-12 has demanded swift, strong and decisive action by the department. Since the Y-12 incursion, major actions have taken place to improve security immediately, and for the long term," she said.
Miller's comments came as a federal jury in Knoxville found the elderly nun and two fellow protesters guilty of breaking into the Y-12 complex and defacing a uranium processing plant. It took the jury about 2 ½ hours to find the three protesters guilty of a charge of interfering with national security and a second charge of damaging federal property.
Sister Megan Rice, now 83, and two men spent about two hours inside the Oak Ridge facility on July 28, cutting through fences to reach a facility known as the "Fort Knox of uranium." Once there, they painted slogans, chipped off a part of a wall with hammers and splattered human blood on the exterior.
Officials maintain that there was never any chance the protesters would reach the uranium stored inside, but prosecutors argued the security breach harmed the Oak Ridge facility's international reputation and that operations continue to be disrupted by the action.
Change at Y-12 has come slowly.
The Energy Department appointed a new contractor to manage the site — and a similar site in Texas — in January, but the Government Accountability Office upheld a protest by two losing bidders.
The NNSA awarded a $22 billion contract to a group of contractors headed by Bechtel National and Lockheed Martin to run the Y-12 complex and the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, Texas. The contract also would include management of the construction project to build a new uranium processing facility at Y-12.
But in a setback for the Energy Department, the GAO recommended last week that the NNSA reopen the contract and seek more information from bidders.
A spokesman for the NNSA said the agency will follow the GAO's recommendations and take corrective action "as quickly as possible."
"While we were pleased that GAO found in the NNSA's favor on 16 of the 17 assertions made" by the losing bidders, "we consider it prudent to follow the recommendation for corrective action as quickly as possible," NNSA spokesman Joshua McConaha said Wednesday.
Bidders will receive requests for additional information in the next few weeks, McConaha said.
"NNSA remains confident that this procurement will result in substantial savings to the American taxpayer while ensuring the safe and secure operations of these two vital national security sites," he said.
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