DOE Reports Lax Security at Both Privately Owned and DOE Nuclear Facilities

May 14, 2004
Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced a set of sweeping new initiatives to improve security across the Energy Department's nationwide network of laboratories and defense facilities, particularly those housing weapons-grade nuclear material.

Addressing a gathering of top security officers from across the DOE complex, Abraham noted that the Energy Department, which develops and maintains the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, is responsible for protecting critical national defense assets that "simply put, must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands."

The secretary unveiled initiatives to expand the capabilities of DOE security personnel, including possibly federalizing some security units currently managed by contractors; consolidate sensitive nuclear material into fewer locations; enhance protections of classified computer information; upgrade security systems at key facilities; and make managers more receptive to security concerns.

"Since the stakes are so high," Abraham told the security officers at DOE's Savannah River Site, "everything is on the table," including the possibilities of common labor-contract language for security groups across the DOE complex or establishing "a special elite federal force" to protect the most sensitive installations. To maximize the effectiveness of DOE security forces, Abraham said the DOE will consider the creation of a specialized security contingent to guard the department's high-priority nuclear facilities, with capabilities similar to the military's Delta Force or Navy SEAL units.

Abraham acknowledged recent reports of security lapses, such as lost keys, at some DOE sites, but he called the incidents rare. "But frankly, rare or not, they are unacceptable, and the failure of any and all levels of management to address instances such as these will not be tolerated," he said.

Addressing the issue of lost keys and key cards, Abraham said he intends to "do away with the use of mechanical keys as an important part of our protection system," and replace them with sophisticated new technologies that will allow a keyless security environment, where access is not afforded by any physical item or object that can be lost or stolen.

Abraham also called for regular reviews of DOE security standards and procedures to ensure "a modern efficient, effective guard force able to meet 21st century threats," and for new programs to train security officers and test their readiness to respond to attacks or attempts to infiltrate facilities.

To ensure that DOE's security establishment functions effectively, Abraham called for a change in the deparment's management culture to improve the way the department accepts, analyzes and responds to criticisms and concerns from outside the department as well as from employees, who Abraham said should be confident about raising questions or concerns without fear of retribution. "If we are able to implement a system a culture where people can legitimately air concerns, then everyone will benefit. Our workforce will be more effective, the public's confidence in this department will improve, and America's security will be greatly enhanced," he said.

"We are committed to making bold changes where necessary," Abraham added, saying that the new security initiatives "are designed to build and support the most robust and motivated protective force in the world."

Applauding the U.S. Energy Department's new initiative to improve security at nuclear weapons facilities, the nation's largest union of private security officers called for the government to go a step further and conduct a comprehensive review of security at the nation's privately owned nuclear power plants, which also have been criticized for lax security.

"Nuclear plants are just as sensitive as weapons facilities, and they're often guarded by the same private company," said Stephen Lerner, director of the Building Services Division of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the nation's largest union of private security officers. "A review of security at nuclear power plants should be on the table as well. We cannot afford vulnerabilities at any sites where nuclear material is present."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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