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Human Fallibility in the Nuclear Industry

It's unnerving how easily three civilians armed with nothing more than bolt cutters, hammers, and spray paint penetrated the defenses of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the pre-dawn hours of July 28.  According to the New York Times, this facility contains more than 100 tons of highly enriched uranium, enough to produce thousands of atomic bombs.  Yet the three intruders had sufficient time to spray-paint several pacifist slogans on the facility's exterior walls before a lone guard encountered them.  Some of the complex's video monitoring equipment was poorly aimed; some wasn't operating at all.

Mishaps of this sort should remind us of the nearly impossible standard of infallibility that we ascribe to managers and staff at our nuclear weapons factories and power plants.  Routine breeds complacency, and complacency opens the door to potential mayhem at facilities - military and civilian - that are handling some of the deadliest materials known to humanity.  As the nuclear industry's lobbyists step up their campaigning for a renewed U.S. commitment to nuclear power, we need to weigh very carefully the added vulnerability that this will cause.  And if America has trouble maintaining the necessary level of vigilance at nuclear sites, what are we to think of the widespread development of nuclear power in much less stable parts of the world?