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Trio breach 'Fort Knox'

Fort Knox compound.

WASHINGTON — In July 2012, three aging anti-nuclear activists, including an 82-year-old nun, cut through fences surrounding the “Fort Knox” of uranium storage, and US lawmakers want to know how that was possible.

The facility is a major storage centre for highly enriched uranium, a key component of nuclear bombs. The security breach at what was supposed to be one of the most secure facilities in the United States has raised new questions about a plan to overhaul oversight of nuclear laboratories and weapons plants.

An internal Energy Department watchdog found guards ignored motion sensors because they are routinely triggered by wildlife, and a security camera that should have shown the break-in had been broken for about six months.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has approved a plan to give more flexibility to the contractor-run facilities that make up the US nuclear weapons complex, part of its annual defense policy bill passed in May.

The governance reforms were geared to address a long legacy of cost overruns and mismanagement at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an Energy Department agency.

But Republicans and Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce committee said the plan needs to be re-examined after the breach by the anti-nuclear activists.

Unstopped until they walked up to a security guard’s car and surrendered, the activists vandalised the exterior of the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

The contractor-run facility was built after the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, and was once touted as “the Fort Knox of uranium” because of its security features.

“If there’s ever a time for more aggressive oversight, this is it,” Republican Representative Joe Barton said at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday.

Barton thanked Sister Megan Rice, a peripatetic nun of the Catholic order of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, for the risks she took in exposing the lax security.

“If she had been a terrorist, the Lord only knows what could have happened,” Barton said. (Reuters)

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