Jan. 30, 2004 – The Bush Administration is planning to rewrite federal rules for government nuclear weapons plants and labs to allow outside contractors to establish their own safety standards for workers, reports the Associated Press. But critics say the United Statesâ€™ sensitive weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites are no place to allow profit-driven organizations to determine safety protocols.
A Department of Energy (DoE) spokesperson described the rewrites as a "continuing effort to get contractors to focus on hazards specific to their sites," writes the AP.
"The department believes the proposed rule seeks to fully protect our workers," DoE Assistant Secretary Beverly Cook told the AP.
The move came after Congress passed legislation in 2002 authorizing the Department of Energy to fine independent contractors working at federal nuclear weapons facilities when they failed to meet employee safety standards.
The Bush Administration's plans would result in what the AP called "contractor-written safety plans."
"The decision making will be largely in the hands of contractors to decide what protections are appropriate," Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) told the AP. "It's the fox guarding the hen house."
The Bush Administration's plans to turn over safety oversight to private companies come on the heels of an article on Wired News reporting the failure of Wackenhut private guards to pass a security exercise at the country's biggest storehouses of American and foreign-made weapons of mass destruction.
According to Wired, during a June 26 mock break-in staged by a government watchdog group at the Y-12 National Security Complex, it took only 38 seconds for examiners to remove a 44-pound "uranium package" from the plant.
The Y-12 weapons complex is the nation's main processing site for enriched uranium, and stores about 5,000 secondaries, "the thermonuclear hearts of hydrogen bombs," says Wired.
The Oak Ridge facility had a history of suspect security tests, writes Wired. Since 1980, the contract security Y-12 employed to guard the plant were allowed to see plans of the test attacks. When the security giant Wackenhut took over policing duties at the plant in 2000, there was improvement, and scores were "nearly perfect" through 2003. But Wired writes during the recent test, "the few times" guards received passing grades were on those tests they had seen prior to being drilled.
In addition, the Tennessee Oak Ridger reports a recent National Nuclear Safety Administration study showed between 200 and 250 keys to non-sensitive site offices went missing.
In a January 26 interview in the Tennessee Knoxville News Sentinel, writes Wired, Wackenhut senior vice president Jean Brumley said, "The state of security at Y-12 is better than it's ever been, and it's getting better."
While President Bush has been labeled by some critics as a "nuclear president," he is not the only chief executive to allow the private profit and nuclear energy to mix. For example, in December of 1998, Clinton Administration Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced plans to produce tritium -- a key ingredient to making nuclear weapons -- at the Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear plants. Before Secretary Richardson "[dragged] TVA into the military weapons business," wrote Ralph Nader in 2001, the facility only developed nuclear power for consumer or commercial consumption.