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Is security good enough at Oak Ridge plant?

By Frank Munger, News-Sentinel Senior writer
April 24, 2002

pictureSecurity is always a hot topic at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant - or so it seems. Even though plant guards last year approved a new contract with Wackenhut, the government's security contractor, there are still issues and concerns.

Some security police don't believe they're as well equipped as their counterparts at other federal nuclear facilities, such as the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Y-12 has a highly trained and capable tactical response team, but one guard said there are still missing capabilities - such as an anti-sniper team - in Oak Ridge. There are weapons needs, as well, he said.

Outside expertise has to be borrowed from local police operations under various agreements, and that doesn't sit well with guards who think Y-12's national security operations should be all-inclusive.

Some folks weren't happy with the response earlier this year when a too-drunk-to-care man from out of state drove his car into Y-12 at 3 a.m. one Saturday. The car reportedly blew past a security checkpoint and then created a standoff situation until Oak Ridge police came and arrested the guy.

One plant guard suggested the situation could have been a nightmare if - for example - the car had been loaded with explosives.

However, Bill Brumley, the top federal official at Y-12, and Sharon Daly, his security chief, said they were comfortable with the way the "unfortunate" situation was handled.

"Our job is to protect national security," Brumley said. "We don't shoot people just because they go through a portal."

The biggest concern was the young man did not respond to security commands, but after determining the driver was drunk, it was a matter of waiting for local police to make the arrest, he said.

Brumley and Daly also insisted the Oak Ridge facilities are not under-equipped.

"I think our response capabilities are very comparable (to Savannah River and other nuclear installations)," Brumley said.

Another issue raised by guards was the recent acquisition of Wackenhut by a Danish firm.

Department of Energy spokesman Steven Wyatt said the ownership change won't affect Wackenhut's security contract in Oak Ridge.

"I'm told they are organized in such a fashion that this should not be a problem," Wyatt said. "But we are doing an FOCI (Foreign Ownership Control and Influence) review to ensure there is no problem."

UPDATING HISTORY: Funds are tight at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but communications chief Billy Stair managed to get enough money to update the exhibits at the Graphite Reactor.

A little rehab was woefully needed at the historic reactor, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Atomic City.

Some of the poster exhibits were simply out of date and did not properly reflect ORNL activities or missions. Plus, the reactor rooms were in need of some housekeeping.

Indeed, Stair amplified that point to lab management with photo evidence of dead insects, which, unfortunately, seemed to have congregated en masse in one visitation area.

The Graphite Reactor, designated a national historic landmark in 1966, has been neglected in recent years.

ORNL spokeswoman Marty Goolsby said the last updating took place in 1992 - when the laboratory celebrated its 50th anniversary.

New information displays are being produced and will be installed at the entrance and in the reactor's exhibit room. Workers also are sprucing up the place with a bit of paint and other repairs.

LABOR FRONT: Construction workers continue to picket the entrances to Oak Ridge National Laboratory to protest hiring practices at the three-building construction project under way there.

The Knoxville Building and Construction Trades Council is unhappy because the project managers have refused to commit to hiring union workers or local workers for the project.

Because the modernization project is privately financed, lab officials have insisted that the hiring practices fall outside the work agreement in place for federally funded projects. They said they expect a mix of union and nonunion workers to be employed.

That stated policy is still the same, but Ray Whitehead, president of the construction labor council, said there have been changes made since the protests began.

Now there are two subcontractors in place hiring local bargaining-unit workers, Whitehead said.

"Prior to the protest, there were no local contractors with a history of performing work under the bargaining unit out there," he said.

The situation is better than it was but not what it could be, Whitehead said.

Even with the Spallation Neutron Source and other big projects under way on the Oak Ridge reservation, the construction workforce is only about half what it was in the late 1980s, the labor leader said.

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Department of Energy for the News-Sentinel. He can be reached at 865-482-9213 or at This column is also available on the Web at

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