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Strike at nuclear site stirs concerns

May 24, 2007|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

The Energy Department, facing concerns that a fractious strike by unionized guards is leaving a nuclear weapons plant in Texas vulnerable to a terrorist attack, is dispatching its top security official to conduct an urgent assessment at the site, officials said Wednesday.

The strike by 524 highly trained nuclear weapons guards is entering its sixth week at the Energy Department's Pantex plant near Amarillo, the nation's primary site for servicing nuclear weapons and one of the most heavily guarded industrial plants.

In response to the walkout, the Energy Department has reassigned supervisors, specially-trained bomb couriers and guards from other plants across the country to help protect the 25-square-mile facility, where fully assembled hydrogen bombs and thousands of components are stored in bunkers.

There are 210 replacement guards -- less than half the normal complement -- now at the site, according to William J. Desmond, chief of defense nuclear security for the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration. He said the plant had eliminated vacations, training and low-priority duties to help cope with a smaller force.

"I am convinced that the Pantex site is secure," Desmond said.

But outside critics disagree. The Energy Department's top security officer, Glenn S. Podonsky, will go to Pantex next week to conduct a higher-level assessment.

In late April, Podonsky told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the plant site was well defended but that a long strike could erode security and strain the nation's entire nuclear weapons infrastructure.

Podonsky is expected to conduct performance exercises to assess how well the ad hoc guard force would respond to armed terrorists. A spokesman for Desmond said the special assessment was being conducted at his agency's request.

Desmond said he believed the Energy Department could weather the strike indefinitely. The striking guards' lost wages, he said, have saved the agency about $200,000, even though it has flown in replacement workers and put them up in hotels.

But Desmond's upbeat assessment is disputed by union and watchdog officials, who say security at the plant is deteriorating as the strike drags on.

Mike Stumbo, chief of the National Council of Security Police, said the strike had "absolutely" eroded security at the site, given that the supervisors are working up to 14-hour shifts, seven out of eight days, and are not familiar with Pantex's unusually stringent protocols.

The plant, about 17 miles northeast of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, is ringed by four layers of security fences, high guard towers with gun ports, and an assemblage of sensors intended to detect a terrorist strike force long before it could reach a weapon.

The Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that has focused on nuclear security and safety, called for a shutdown of Pantex operations last week in a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman.

"The current security situation is untenable," wrote Danielle Brian, executive director of the group.

The strike does not appear anywhere near a settlement. The former union president has been accused of holding unauthorized meetings with management, and he quit his post during a chaotic rank-and-file meeting and then crossed his own picket line the next day, Stumbo said.

"We have never seen a situation like this," he said.

Though Texas is a "right-to-work" state, where union membership is not required for employment, only four guards have crossed the strike line, the union says.

Stumbo said he had traveled to Washington three times since the strike began, asking members of Congress and the Energy Department to federalize the guards, who work for BWX Technologies, the contractor that operates the Pantex plant.

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ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

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