The exam, with answers, was circulated to guards at the Y-12 nuclear complex, near Oak Ridge, Tenn., before they took it, according to a new federal report.

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WASHINGTON — Security guards at a nuclear-weapons plant who failed to stop an 82-year-old nun from reaching a bomb-fuel storage building this year were also cheating on their recertification exams, according to an internal investigation by the Department of Energy, which owns the weapons plant.

The exam, with answers, was circulated to guards at the Y-12 complex, near Oak Ridge, Tenn., before they took it, according to the report, by the department’s inspector general.

The report, released Wednesday, said it was routine for the department to involve contractor personnel in preparing such exams, because the federal government did not know enough about the security arrangements to write the exam without the help of the contractor.

A federal security official sent the exam by encrypted email to “trusted agents” at the management contractor, B&W, but did not instruct those executives to keep it secret from the people who would take it, according to the report.

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The government learned of the cheating because an inspector visiting the plant noticed a copy of an exam on the seat of a patrol vehicle the day before the test was given.

The security contractor was Wackenhut, but its contract was terminated after a security breach July 28, when the nun and two accomplices cut through three layers of fence, splashed blood on a building housing bomb-grade uranium, performed a Christian ritual, then waited to be apprehended. A subsequent investigation found many security cameras had been disabled long before the break-in.

B&W remains the site’s management contractor.

The inspector general, Gregory Friedman, said the failure to secure the exam was “inexplicable and inexcusable.” Part of the problem, he said, was “contractor governance” by the Energy Department. Almost all the work done by the department is performed by contractors.

There were indications that some officials at Y-12 knew they were doing wrong. One contractor official, who had described the exam during a daily meeting, said in an email discovered by the inspector general: “Please remember the sensitivity issue with these questions. It would not be a good idea for these to be left lying around” or for an officer “to have these in hand during an audit.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration, the part of the Energy Department that runs the weapons plants, disagreed with the report’s conclusions.

In a written response, Thomas D’Agostino, head of the administration, said the problem was not governance, because the issue was not the release of the test to contractor officials for checking, but “the abuse of discretion (or disregard of controls for further distribution) on the Contractor’s part in releasing the materials to a broader group of employees.”

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