After 3-1/2 years, security officers may be armed and make arrests, but the company said half the guards may be unarmed.
By Joe Walker firstname.lastname@example.org
The U.S. Department of Energy restored plant guards' arming and arrest powers Monday for the first time since March 1997. Meanwhile, officers had functioned only with state law enforcement authority.
On Thursday night, USEC Inc., which operates the DOE-owned plant, issued a policy saying each shift can have as few as two armed guards.
"We certainly think this is degradation of the effectiveness of our security program, and it places not only our officers at risk, but public and national security at risk, given the uniqueness of our facility," said John Driskill, president of the Security Police and Fire Professionals of America, Local 111.
Weapons deter crime, he said, and the new policy contradicts the intent of federal legislation passed to reverse the 1997 decision pulling officers' arming and arrest authority. Driskill said this week's developments are worrisome, particularly since the plant has heightened security because of the recent bombing of a U.S. Navy ship in the Middle East.
"DOE and USEC have fought tooth and nail against keeping armed security staff out here," he said.
But USEC spokeswoman Elizabeth Stuckle said the new policy is geared to provide enhanced training and job security for guards. The plant has 36 security officers, and federal regulations require at least four per shift.
"We're not reducing the number of armed guards," she said. "What we're doing is ensuring that the guards who can't meet DOE's weapons qualification requirements will remain active members of the guard force, as opposed to being laid off or made available for another job if it existed and they were qualified."
Driskill said cutting the bare number of armed officers to two per shift means that supervisors who carry sidearms, but work much of their time in offices, might suffice. That would mean having no one actually patrolling the plant, he said.
Stuckle responded that while it's possible to have the two slots filled by supervisors, USEC has no plans to take guns away from the regular security force.
"We believe they should have weapon and arrest power, and that's why we've worked hard on this for the past two years," she said.
DOE's 1997 decision coincided with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's assuming regulatory control over USEC. The NRC does not specifically require armed security officers, and neither USEC nor DOE wanted to deviate from that stance.
The guards union sought help from the Kentucky delegation, which secured legislation in fall 1998 mandating arming and arrest authority at the plant. After two years of review with USEC, the energy department formally restored those powers Monday.