Nuclear facilitiesInvasion at “Fort Knox of Uranium” raises security concerns
The Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is regarded asthe Fort Knox of Uranium, so the fact that three anti-nuclear activists, one of them an 82-year old nun, were able to breach the high-security complex’s protective fences is not reassuring; that they did so using nothing more than bolt cutters, after announcing their arrival from half-a-mile away, and that they could stay, undetected, in a highly secure area on the nuclear complex’s ground for two hours, is even more worrisome
Three protesters arrested inside the "Fort Knox of Uranium" // Source: ornl.gov
The Y-12 National Security Complex, where nuclear weapons components are manufactured, is regarded asthe Fort Knox of Uranium,” so the fact that three anti-nuclear activists, one of them an 82-year old nun, were able to breach the high-security complex’s protective fences is not reassuring. That they did so using nothing more than bolt cutters, and after announcing their arrival from half-a-mile away, is even more worrisome
The Washington Post reports that Sister Megan Rice, an 82-year old nun, Michael Walli,and Greg Boertje-Obed used bolt cutters to get through three fences, tripping alarms in the process, but managed to stay in a secure area on the grounds for more than two hours — undetected. During that time the trio spray painted and threw blood on the walls of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF) located inside the complex.
Y-12 fashions the uranium components for war heads in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The facility, which is the U.S.primary source for bomb-grade uranium,also dismantles old nuclear warheads.
Officials for Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Y-12, LLC, the contractor managing the facility, insist that although the protestors went unchallenged for two hours, there was never a threat ofthem getting to any dangerous materials. The HEUMF itself is a virtual fortress designed to withstand earthquake up to a 7.7 magnitude, tornado-force winds up to 200 mph,or the impact of a general aviation aircraft.
“Our (protection force) is deployed so that any serious attempt to attack the facility would be repulsed well in advance of any credible threat,” Steven Wyatt, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration at Y-12, said in an email.
Former Department of Energy adviser Peter Stockton thinks that the issue is being undermined because there was not an immediate threat. “We were lucky in that regard that it was the nun and her cohorts, rather than a serious terrorist outfit,” the Washington Post quotes him as saying.
Stockton called the intrusion the “only serious penetration of a plant” that he is aware of since being involved in nuclear issues in the 1970s.
“It is simply (expletive) unbelievable,” he told the Post.
After the incident, Darrel Kohlhorst, the president and general manager of the Babcock & Wilcox division that runs Y-12, retired from his post. He told the Knoxville News Sentinel that the company would learn and grow from this incident.
“Well, I think it did show us we had some weaknesses. We had some deficiencies,” Kohlhorst told the Post. “The team has really attacked those things and corrected them, and I think we’re actually going to be a lot stronger coming out of this thing.”
Stockton,however,was not as optimistic as Kohlhorst and thinks that the unclear response by Y-12 could have been much worse under different circumstances.
“You get through the fences, you get to the building, and if you have special forces guys —dedicated guys who are suicidal and heavily armed —all you do is blow the door off or blow a hole in the side of the building.”
In the past protestors have rallied at the gates of the site around the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. At times, people have tried deliberately to get arrested by blocking traffic or provoking police to bring attention to their cause. Prosecutors in the past have refused to throw the book at protesters, and the stiffest penalty that has been handed down was less than a year in prison.
Representatives of Y-12 may think that this intrusion was not serious, but federal prosecutors feel much differently,chargingthe group with a long list of violations that could carry cumulative prison sentences of up to sixteen years.
“That’s the reaction to the embarrassment,” said Ralph Hutchison of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance.