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Associated Press, Published September 29 2012

Protesters receive some praise from members of Congress

The breach of security at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., brought a withering response from members of Congress this month about security at the site. Ironically, they also had some praise for the Plowshares protesters who cut through four fences and reached a building that stores tons of uranium used for nuclear weapons.

At a Sept. 12 House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee hearing, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, asked 82-year-old nun Sister Megan Gillespie Rice to stand in the audience.

“While I don’t totally agree with your platform that you were espousing, I do thank you for bringing out the inadequacies in our security system,” Barton said.

“That young lady there brought a Holy Bible,” he said. “If she had been a terrorist, the Lord only knows what would have happened.”

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., agreed that Rice should be praised for her actions. The representative is known for his anti-nuclear views, including some opposition to the proposed new uranium processing facility at Oak Ridge.

“We thank you for your courage,” he said. “It’s important that we have nuns on the bus, not under the bus, which a lot of people would like for you, sister. They think you should be punished and not praised.”

The Y-12 plant makes uranium parts for every warhead in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, dismantles old weapons and is the nation’s primary storehouse for bomb-grade uranium. Officials insist that there was never any danger of activists getting to materials in the building.

At another hearing the next day, Michael Turner, R-Ohio, blasted the security team at Oak Ridge, saying that the issue of security has been questioned for more than a decade at facilities across the country.

“It is outrageous to think that the greatest threat to the American public from weapons of mass destruction may be the incompetence of DOE security,” Turner said at the Armed Services subcommittee hearing on strategic forces.

He said a staffer brought the point home for him.

“The day-care center on Capitol Hill may be more protected than our nuclear weapons were on that night at Y-12,” he said.

Turner also took time to thank the protesters who performed the intrusion at Oak Ridge.

“Thank God we didn’t have the security threat it could have been,” Turner said.

A report by the Department of Energy’s inspector general, Gregory Friedman, has blamed significant security failures for the unprecedented intrusion, including broken detection equipment, a poor response from security guards and insufficient federal oversight of private contractors running the complex.

The first security officer to arrive told the inspector general he didn’t notice the trespassers until they approached his vehicle and “surrendered,” the report states. The report noted the officer did not secure the area, did not draw his weapon on the trespassers and allowed them to roam about and retrieve items from their backpacks.

Protester Greg Boertje-Obed of Duluth said the trio read an indictment to the officer, part of their belief that the creation and existence of nuclear weapons is a crime.

Security officers who heard the protesters beating on the walls of the building with a hammer had incorrectly assumed that they were construction workers, the report indicated.

Top management for the Y-12 security company have been forced to retire or fired, the National Nuclear Security Administration reported. Other security personnel were fired as well.

The NNSA was created in 1999 to help the Department of Energy deal with increasing security breaches in the nuclear weapons program across the country.

Rep. Turner said the creation has not fixed the problem with security, as evidenced July 28.

“The system is broken,” he said. “This must never happen again.”

“This incursion and the poor response to it demonstrated a deeply flawed execution of security procedures at Y-12,” said Daniel Poneman, the Department of Energy’s deputy secretary. “We acted swiftly to identify and address the problems it revealed.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., said that for years, security has been a nagging problem at nuclear facilities and the Plowshares action should be a catalyst.

“Now we have proof,” she said.

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Forum Communications reporter Mike Creger contributed to this report.