By Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Defense Department should take over security for U.S. nuclear weapons sites after a nuclear complex was broken into with ease in July by an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists, a top lawmaker in the U.S. House of Representatives said on Friday.
Mike Turner, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services panel that oversees the Energy Department's nuclear weapons complex, has drafted legislation to put the U.S. military in charge of protecting facilities like the Y-12 complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
"The fact that this vulnerability is so widely known has got to be addressed," Turner said in an interview.
The Y-12 facility, built after the September 11, 2001, attacks, had been previously touted as "the Fort Knox of uranium" and was supposed to be one of the most secure facilities in the United States.
But in July, the three anti-nuclear activists cut through several fences and vandalized a building which holds the U.S. stockpile of highly enriched uranium used to make nuclear bombs.
An internal Energy Department watchdog found guards ignored motion sensors because they were routinely triggered by wildlife, and a security camera that should have shown the break-in had been broken for about six months.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, part of the Energy Department, is continuing to investigate what went wrong with its oversight of contractors.
The facility is run by Babcock & Wilcox Co, and WSI Oak Ridge, owned by G4S, provides security. Their contracts are being reviewed, and a number of personnel have been removed from their jobs.
"We have seen just an absolute failure of security at Y-12. We believe from our classified briefing that this is system-wide, that NNSA and (Energy Department) are incapable of providing the level of security necessary for our nuclear weapons facilities," Turner said.
Turner, who has spent a decade monitoring issues with the Energy Department's management of the complex, said he does not believe the NNSA can fix the issues that allowed for the incursion.
Putting the Pentagon in charge would increase security, allow for better technology and weapons to be used in protecting facilities, and eliminate any interdepartmental issues in sharing classified intelligence about threats, he said.
Turner's bill also would charge the Pentagon with securing the transportation of nuclear materials between facilities.
"I am more concerned about the transport than I am the facilities, and the facilities have already shown to be highly vulnerable," he said.
Turner has so far gathered about six Republican cosponsors for his bill, which he hopes to see become part of the annual defense policy legislation when the Senate and House finalize it after the November 6 election.
(Editing by Jackie Frank)