ERIK SCHELZIG, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — An 82-year-old Roman Catholic nun accused of breaching security at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee with two fellow peace activists elicited both praise and criticism Wednesday at a congressional hearing on the intrusion.
Sister Megan Rice and her co-defendants face federal charges that could carry a maximum prison sentence of 16 years in prison if convicted. Authorities said the activists cut through security fences July 28 surrounding the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility at Y-12 and defaced the building with blood and spray paint.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, asked Rice to stand in the audience at Wednesday's hearing of the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee in Washington.
"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 added. "If she had been a terrorist, the Lord only knows what would have happened."
But Rep. Michael Burgess, another Texas Republican, questioned the presence of activists such as Rice at the Washington hearing.
"I don't understand why these individuals are free to be here in the hearing room today," he said. " ... What is to prevent them from doing the very same thing tomorrow night or the night after?"
The plant in Oak Ridge 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 that could be detonated on site or used to assemble a dirty bomb.
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.
Security officers who heard the protesters beating on the walls of the building with a hammer had incorrectly assumed that they were construction workers, it indicated.
Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado thanked Rice for attending, and said she regretted that she wasn't allowed to testify.
"It would be interesting to hear your perspective on how you were able to breach these four fences at the Fort Knox-type facility," DeGette said.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said Rice should be praised for her actions.
"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."