The hammering on the wall of America's premier storage vault for nuclear-weapons grade uranium in pitch-darkness six weeks ago was loud enough to be heard by security guards. But they assumed incorrectly that workmen were making an after-hours repair, and blithely ignored it.
Minutes earlier, a perimeter camera had caught an image of intruders - not workmen -- breaching an eight-foot high security fence around the sensitive facility outside Knoxville, Tenn. But the guard operating the camera had missed it. A different camera stationed over another fence - also breached by the intruders -- was out of service, a defect the protective force had ignored for 6 months.
In theory, the pounding might have been the work of a squad of terrorists preparing to plant a powerful explosive in the wall of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF), a half-billion dollar vault that stores the makings of more than 10,000 nuclear bombs. Instead, it was a group of three peace activists, including an 82-year-old nun, armed only with flashlights, binoculars, bolt cutters, bread, flowers, a Bible, and several hammers.
The casual and relatively swift penetration of the site's defenses on July 28 by the activists has provoked their felony indictment on federal trespassing charges. But it has also provoked new troubles for nuclear weapons contractors that have until recently had large influence in Washington, and for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the increasingly embattled steward of America's dwindling but still fearsome arsenal of nuclear weaponry.
"This incident raises important questions about the security of Category I nuclear materials across the complex," NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino, a George W. Bush administration holdover, said on Aug. 28. He promised to hold "our team" accountable for making the reforms necessary to assure such materials are adequately protected. Since the break-in, five senior officials at WSI-Oak Ridge, the installation's security provider, and the main contractor responsible for HEUMF operations -- Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Y-12, LLC -- have been reassigned by the contractors or have retired.
But two congressional hearings this week will probe the event more deeply, one Wednesday morning by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee and one on Thursday afternoon by a House Armed Services subcommittee. A key issue at the hearings, at which D'Agostino will be a key witness, will be whether the NNSA and its bureaucratic parent, the Energy Department, have been too lax in their oversight of the contractors that operate most of the facilities in the nuclear weapons enterprise.
That notion is embarrassing to both the Obama administration and Republican lawmakers, which until now have supported an increasingly laissez-faire approach to the contractors' work and performance. In fact, when the NNSA was created 12 years ago, it was given a semi-independent status within the Department of Energy to ensure that Washington's heavy bureaucratic hand did not interfere with the independent scientific traditions at its nine nuclear weapons facilities, on which the government annually spends more than $7 billion.
But NNSA's work has lately been heavily criticized from all sides: Many nuclear weapons scientists revile it for imposing expensive safety and security rules they consider needless, while employee unions and government watchdogs say its managers have largely been asleep at the wheel -- allowing waste, safety defects, and other problems to persist or even flourish.
The intrusion of the three activists has now bolstered the watchdogs' campaign for a tighter leash from Washington. "I suspect any belief we should loosen oversight of the weapons complex is extinguished by the latest break-in of our 'Fort Knox of Uranium' by an octogenarian nun," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog group, Project on Government Oversight.
* This article has been updated.