Amid contractor’s strike at nuclear plant, lawmakers eye federalizing security guards

Amid a strike by the contract security guards at the country’s only nuclear-weapons assembly plant, House staffers are drafting legislation to federalize the force protecting highest-security sites that make or store nuclear materials.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the chairman of the investigations panel of the House energy committee, said he aims to attach the legislation to the defense authorization next month, setting up a clash with the Department of Energy (DoE), which is opposed to transforming the force into one of federal workers.

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Nearly 550 guards at the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas, walked off the job earlier this month, protesting a reduction in retirement security that came just as more stringent fitness standards were putting older guards out of work.

By federalizing the heavily armed forces guarding such high-risk sites, DoE would be able to implement human-resources policies better suited to the heightened security levels since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Stupak argued.

“We ask them to protect our most dangerous, most secretive weapons and yet we treat them like they’re third-class citizens,” he said.

The guards protecting “category 1” nuclear sites, such as the Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, long have been employed by a patchwork of private companies offering varying benefits and pay. The Pantex guards work for BWX Technologies.

A 2004 report from a DoE task force recommended federalizing the guards as the best way of transforming them into an “elite protective force” capable of repelling the most aggressive attacks from armed terrorists.

“In principle, the best long-term organizational foundation for achieving the secretary’s objective is the conversion of existing contractor protective forces to federal status,” the former administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), Linton F. Brooks, wrote to a former deputy energy secretary, Kyle McSlarrow. NNSA is the DoE agency charged with overseeing category 1 nuclear sites.

In January 2005, McSlarrow endorsed the report’s findings and ordered that its recommendations be implemented. The department later abandoned the idea, despite the conclusions of previous analyses, noted in the report, that federalizing the workers would not increase costs.

In a recent meeting with House staffers, NNSA officials said they believed that federalizing the protective force would result in lower pay for the guards and therefore would be unpopular.

Asked for the DoE’s view on the issue, a department spokesman Wednesday said: “We have taken a look at this issue in the past in a number of studies. The department’s protective force structure, coupled with our security policy initiatives, are providing heightened levels of protection for our facilities that hold our sensitive national assets in the current threat environment.”

Critics of contracting the security at the facilities cite the potential for work stoppages due to labor disputes and argue that contractors’ drive to increase profits could lead them to cut corners on security.

The guards themselves are trying to federalize, believing that they would gain better retirement security and greater freedom to move into less strenuous positions as they age. They have cited frustration over what they call a steep decline in security standards due to contractor mismanagement.

“Once that’s exposed, the people that have allowed those security degradations to take place should be held accountable,” said Mike Stumbo, a Pantex guard and the head of the council of unions that represent the DoE protective forces.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked the DoE inspector general to investigate the plant late last year after employees sent a letter complaining of lax security standards and poor working conditions. The senator also sent a request to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year asking analysts to review the cost of federalizing the protective forces. A spokesman from the lawmaker’s office said Grassley was not planning to introduce legislation.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee staff has contacted the GAO on the issue in recent weeks, though it has made no formal request for information. And a staffer from the House Energy Committee said several lawmakers on the House Armed Services panel have expressed interest in Stupak’s legislation.
Federalizing the protective force would be a complex task, both legally and administratively, but Stupak argued that it was a crucial step for shoring up the security of nuclear sites.

“I just don’t think you get the dedicated employees when it’s privatized,” he said. “They see it as a dead-end job, not rewarded or appreciated.”