Employee pleads not guilty to charges of stealing uranium data from US lab

A contract employee at a U.S. nuclear material cleanup site pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges that he stole classified information about enriching uranium to sell to foreign governments.

Roy Lynn Oakley, 65, was arrested in January after he allegedly tried to sell the sensitive material to undercover FBI agents, officials said. None of the data made it out of the country or was transmitted to criminal or terrorist groups, officials said.

Oakley entered the plea before a federal judge in Knoxville, Tennessee. 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 (EUR 361,800) 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 worked as a low-level contractor for Bechtel Jacobs Co. at the East Tennessee Technology Park. The park is a cleanup site that once housed the U.S. government's gaseous diffusion plant used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, the Energy Department said.

The 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.

"We're dealing with an issue of obvious sensitivity. I can't discuss it," said Billy Stair, a spokesman for the Oak Ridge lab.

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 (Ђ2.3 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.

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