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Break-in forges political consensus for tighter nuclear oversight

There's widespread anger on Capitol Hill about a security breach at a vault for nuclear weapons-grade uranium

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On Wednesday morning, a House Republican lawmaker from Omaha looked directly at the 82-year old nun who broke into the site of America’s premier vault for nuclear weapons-grade uranium six weeks ago and said her act had done something rare in Washington: It united Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

At a hearing on the break-in by a House oversight and investigations subcommittee, that lawmaker — Rep. Lee Terry, R-Nebr., and other colleagues from both sides of the aisle excoriated the government contractors in charge of securing the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility in Tennessee and the Energy Department officials responsible for overseeing their work. The nun, Megan Rice, with two other peace activists, cut through a series of fences July 28 and used a small hammer to pit the side of the facility.

Two lawmakers used the word “appalling,” and one called the incident “mind-boggling.” Another, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Tex., demanded that top government officials be fired, citing the precedent set by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2008 when he fired the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff over the mishandling of nuclear bombs and materials.

Appearing for the Obama administration, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel B. Poneman and National Nuclear Security Administrator Thomas D’Agostino were contrite, but neither indicated high-level departures were in the offing. D’Agostino, a Bush administration holdover, said he agreed it was inexcusable, and both promised that security reforms are now the department’s top priority.

Rice was in the audience during the hearing, but not invited to testify. She spoke up at one point to correct an Energy Department official who said the trio had cut through three fences, explaining that it was actually four.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Tex., told Rice, who faces a trial next Feb. on felony criminal charges, that “we want to thank you” for pointing out the security shortcomings. “If she had been a terrorist, the Lord only knows what would have happened,” he said. He joined at least five other members, including subcommittee chairman Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., in stating that the incident demonstrated the need for much tighter oversight of the contractors that presently manage the Knoxville site and most U.S. nuclear weapons work.

Several from both parties criticized legislation passed by House Republicans earlier this year that would relax such oversight. Mark Gaffigan, managing director of the natural resources division at the Government Accountability Office, called the incident “all-too-familiar” because of persistent DoE safety and security shortcomings, and joined the calls for tighter oversight.

DoE Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman said he thought the guards, who Rice has said first appeared 30 minutes after the first fence was breached, were “numbed” by false security alarms provoked by animals. But DoE health and security chief Glenn S. Padonsky also revealed that two critical security cameras were malfunctioning at the site for six months; one needed only the flip of a circuit breaker switch, while the other required repairs that took only a day, once the break-in occurred, he said.

D’Agostino acknowledged it was his office that was responsible for overseeing camera repairs after a classified 2009 report — first mentioned by The Washington Post — depicted some as malfunctioning. “We had a breakdown up and down the chain, including a sense of complacency that something like this could not happen,” Poneman said. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., called the DoE response a “classic bureaucratic pass-the-buck,” adding that “you fixed them after you were embarrassed and you fixed them two years late.”