Las Vegas SUN

July 23, 2007

Editorial: A classified mess

Alleged theft of material is a sign the government needs to increase nuclear security

A worker cleaning up a uranium processing plant was charged last week with stealing sensitive material and trying to sell it to a foreign government, and federal officials quickly congratulated themselves for being "vigilant" in protecting the nation's security.

Instead of pats on the back, federal officials should be embarrassed. This is just the latest, and possibly the most minor, of recent security breaches suffered by the Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The accused, 65-year-old Roy Lynn Oakley, was part of a crew cleaning up an Oak Ridge National Laboratory facility in Tennessee. The facility once was used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Oakley allegedly took non-radioactive material and hardware used in the enrichment process and called the French Embassy trying to find a buyer. He later allegedly tried to sell the material to an undercover FBI agent.

Federal officials say what Oakley is accused of taking is not the "crown jewels" of the nuclear program. Nonetheless, the material included some complex filters that are part of the enrichment process, which might be helpful to a rogue nation eager to build a nuclear weapon.

Oakley's attorney, Herb Moncier, said his client, a laborer assigned to break up non-radioactive rods to prepare them for disposal, was just trying to make some money off "trash."

Federal officials, however, see this as a federal case, with one official crowing that it shows the "strength" of the security system. If the security really was strong, how did a laborer walk away from the supposedly secure facility with such sensitive material?

This case is just a part of a troubling pattern of security lapses at government facilities over the last several years that have led to the thefts of caches of classified documents and bomb-making materials.

Given that there is a history of problems with security at nuclear facilities, and federal officials persistently warn of potential terrorist attacks, we wonder when the federal government is going to listen to its own warnings and do something about nuclear security.