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Scientists Allege Poor Nuclear Security

IN BATTLEFIELDS as diverse as high rises and nuclear plants, contract security companies and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have been warring over who can better protect U.S. infrastructure. The SEIU says that guard companies ignore officer warnings about poor security procedures and officer treatment, putting the nation’s security at high risk. The guard companies reply that most of the complaints are issued by a few disgruntled workers and are unfounded, and that the SEIU is involved in a self-serving effort to expand its ranks.

One of the latest skirmishes is at the South Texas Project, a nuclear plant in Wadsworth, Texas, that contracts security to Wackenhut. In that case, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued a report alleging that security officers at the plant have expressed numerous concerns about security but have either been ignored or retaliated against. Wackenhut says that the SEIU is largely behind this report. The UCS says that the report reflects its own views, though it acknowledges that “it consulted with SEIU” for its experience with these issues.

Among the allegations was the charge that mock intruders have been ordered to lose during force-on-force exercises at the plant—so plant management would look good in front of visitors—and that the training provided for vehicle checks is woefully inadequate.

The president of Wackenhut’s Nuclear Service Division, Richard Michau, CPP, says that these allegations have been looked into and, where valid, they have been addressed. But, he says, many deal with human resources rather than security matters or are outright false. An example of the latter, he says, is the mock invader force being directed by management to lose.

Other complaints, Michau says, arise from the guards’ lack of knowledge of the full security scheme at the plant. One assertion is that fog often renders perimeter CCTV useless. Michau says that all nuclear plants are required to have compensatory measures for fog—such as use of other technology or manpower—and that that’s the case at the South Texas Project.

David Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the UCS, says that keeping guards in a metaphorical fog is part of the problem. “The person who raises the issue should be told” whether other measures are in place to alleviate those concerns, Lochbaum says, though “not necessarily every detail. Guards are cleared for that type of information.”

To determine whether a problem really exists at the plant, a security review was conducted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). There’s disagreement about the significance of the findings among those who have seen the report, however.

It found only one minor problem and otherwise concluded that the allegations were unfounded, says Michau. But the UCS, which has also seen the report, draws a different conclusion; it says that multiple issues were identified but that none requires immediate remediation.

Guard complaints about nuclear security are nothing new. When officers issued 19 security allegations last year against security provider Securitas and plant operator Progress Energy at the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant in North Carolina, the NRC responded with a detailed security review.

In a March 2006 report, the NRC analyzed the allegations and found merit on both sides, with only about half determined to be unsubstantiated. But it found that most of the substantiated allegations were minor in that they either didn’t degrade plant security or didn’t arise from noncompliance with security rules.

In the case of the Shearon Harris plant, the result suggests that the real problem is not so much a lack of security as a lack of communication among guards and management. When the Shearson Harris guards got the full story on the unsubstantiated allegations, “they agreed—they didn’t have the full picture,” says Lochbaum.

Lochbaum is open to the possibility that the end result may be the same in Texas. He adds that the UCS doesn’t care who performs the security as long as it is effective and in compliance: “If Wackenhut fixes the problem, that’s good enough for us.”