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 fine.
The government says between October 17, 2006 and January 26, 2007 Oakley took home sections of "barriers" or pipes used in uranium enrichment, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr.
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 expected to post $25,000 bail Thursday, Moncier said.
Oakley worked as a low-level maintenance worker for 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, and he sold the rods to an undercover federal agent who told Oakley that he represented the French embassy. Moncier did not know exactly what the rods were made of, but they were not uranium or dangerous.
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."
Prosecutors say Oakley tried to sell the material to a foreign country and was rebuffed, reports Orr. At some point after that, the FBI set up a sting operation in which Oakley unwittingly tried to negotiate with undercover agents posing as prospective buyers.
"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," said U.S. Attorney Russ Dedrick.
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.
Officials say Oakley acted alone with no conspirators and was not part of any larger group. The motive appears to be related to money and not ideology.
He was interviewed by the FBI in January and his property was searched, but he remained free until turning himself in to authorities earlier today, reports Orr.
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.