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Mike Creger, Forum Communications, Published September 29 2012

Incident a ‘wake-up call,’ energy secretary says

The Plowshares’ brash intrusion at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., in July made headlines across the world as countries continue to negotiate agreements on nuclear weaponry and materials.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke about the incident Sept. 17 at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s annual conference in Vienna.

“Even in the United States, we realize that we must always remain vigilant,” Chu said in a prepared statement. “When protesters breached the security perimeter of one of our most important nuclear security facilities, we took swift and strong action to redouble security at all of our nuclear sites.

“While they never posed a threat to any sensitive materials, this unfortunate incident was an important wake-up call for our entire complex, and an important reminder that none of us can afford anything but the highest level of vigilance.”

The Plowshares group could be assuaged by what Chu also said at the conference about the existence of nuclear materials, echoing a theme from President Barack Obama in a speech he made in Prague in 2009.

“The United States will continue step-by-step to achieve a world without nuclear weapons,” Chu said. “This includes pursuit of a future agreement with Russia for broad reductions in all nuclear weapons – strategic, non-strategic, deployed and non-deployed. And it involves continuing engagement among all five nuclear weapon states to improve nuclear transparency and discuss nuclear weapons and proliferation issues.”

But the existence of nuclear materials won’t end soon.

Weapon dismantlement efforts at Oak Ridge are backlogged by at least 15 years, said Ralph Hutchison from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, a group that follows the plant closely and holds regular vigils at its front gates. He said investment needs to be made in getting rid of weapons and materials and not in projects like the three uranium processing facilities in the process of being built in the country.

One of those is an estimated $6.5 billion project at Oak Ridge, the reason Plowshares was there on July 28. It would be the largest construction project in the history of Tennessee.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., is among those who’ve called for scrapping new uranium facilities and other expensive projects in the nuclear weapons budget. Others have questioned whether there’s a need for new uranium facilities at a time when the nuclear arsenal is being downsized.

He praised the Plowshares group at a congressional hearing Sept. 12 for bringing the security question to light.

Nuclear is big business, Hutchison said, and it can be difficult for people to imagine global and regional economics without a nuclear industry.

“It’s the only defense now,” he said of clinging to the economic structure in place.

The Department of Energy spends about $1 billion a year on security alone at its nuclear materials sites.

The U.S. is committed to what it calls alternative uses of nuclear technology outside of weaponry.

“We have worked to create a new international framework for peaceful nuclear energy,” Chu said in Vienna, mentioning space exploration as one use for nuclear materials. “The United States supports expanded and reliable access to fuel supplies, working through the commercial marketplace and public-private partnerships, for peaceful nuclear programs.”

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Mike Creger writes for The Duluth News Tribune.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.