WASHINGTON (AP) – A contract employee at a nuclear material cleanup site in Tennessee pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that he stole classified information about enriching uranium to sell to foreign governments.
Roy Lynn Oakley, 65, of Roane County, Tenn., was arrested in January after he allegedly tried to sell the sensitive material to undercover FBI agents.
None of the data made it out of the country or was transmitted to criminal or terrorist groups, the Justice Department said in a statement issued in Washington.
Oakley entered the plea before a federal judge in Knoxville, Tenn. He was charged with two counts of possessing hardware used in uranium enrichment. He could face a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
His lawyer, Herb Moncier, said Oakley never took anything important from the site. Moncier said government lawyers, referring to the hardware items, “say they are ‘appliances.’ We say they are trash.”
Oakley was expected to post $25,000 bail late Thursday, Moncier said.
Oakley was employed as a maintenance worker by Bechtel Jacobs Co. at the East Tennessee Technology Park. The park is a cleanup site that once housed the government’s gaseous diffusion plant used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, the Energy Department said.
Moncier said Oakley’s job was to break up metal rods so they could be thrown away. Moncier did not know what the rods were made of, but said they were not uranium or dangerous.
A law enforcement official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the information, said Oakley was soliciting buyers for the material.
Moncier said Oakley sold the rods to an undercover federal agent who told Oakley that he represented the French Embassy.
The government said the material Oakley tried to sell was classified and that he had “reason to believe the materials would be used to injure the United States and secure an advantage to a foreign country.”
“One of our top priorities in East Tennessee is to protect the mission, facilities and personnel at Oak Ridge from both external and internal threats,” U.S. Attorney Russ Dedrick said.
Oakley has no criminal record, according to state and local officials. Moncier said his client was arrested once for reckless driving in 1967, but the charge was dismissed.
The gaseous diffusion plant closed in 1987. The cleanup of the site, including radioactive waste left over from the Cold War years, has continued under a contract with Bechtel. The site is part of the federal Oak Ridge reservation, but is separate from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Oak Ridge is the Energy Department’s largest science and energy laboratory. Between 1942 and 1945, it was part of the top-secret bomb-building Manhattan Project, which turned this rural countryside about 20 miles west of Knoxville into a “secret city” of 75,000 people.
Oak Ridge was the first uranium enrichment facility; pilot-scale nuclear reactors were built there. About 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium were produced over a year’s time for the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
“I think one of the lessons is that the security system works,” Oak Ridge lab spokesman Billy Stair said. “Even though the individual is not a part of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the security process worked just like we hoped it would and all of our assets were protected.”
The indictment was the second leak of classified information from sensitive department sites in the past year.
In October, police conducting a drug raid in northern New Mexico stumbled onto more than 1,000 pages of secret documents and several computer storage devices containing classified information that had been taken from the Los Alamos National Laboratory by a contract employee assigned to archive nuclear weapons data.
Because of that security breakdown, the department this week proposed $3.3 million in fines against the University of California, which formerly managed the Los Alamos lab, and a consortium of companies that took over the management contract a year ago.
Associated Press writers Duncan Mansfield in Knoxville, Tenn., and H. Josef Hebert in Washington contributed to this report.