Union Takes Issue With Fitness Rules for Nuclear Plant Guards

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Two years ago, the Energy Department announced plans for creating "a special elite federal force" to protect high-priority nuclear plants. The department's nuclear weapons stockpile, "simply put, must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands," then-Secretary Spencer Abraham said.

After 18 months of study, the department came up with a policy to create combat teams, much like the military's Delta Force or Navy SEALs, that could engage adversaries outside a nuclear weapons plant rather than wait for attackers from inside plant gates.

These elite combat units, however, are not made up of government employees. They work for companies that operate Energy Department plants or for contractors that provide guards and security officers.

And according to union officials, the contract officers are increasingly concerned about their employment status and would like the option to shift to the federal workforce.

Energy Department plants and facilities that use nuclear weapons material, especially plutonium and highly enriched uranium, are expanding the number of security jobs covered by rigorous physical fitness standards, and many officers are concerned they will lose their jobs. Officers are also uneasy about an Energy Department proposal that they think could reduce their pension and health-care benefits, the union representatives said.

A department official said contractors should be able to reassign into less demanding jobs those officers who do not meet the fitness standards for "offensive combative" positions. Any pension and health-care changes would affect only new hires, and the policy that would have triggered those changes has been suspended, pending further review, the official said.

The Energy Department also is not interested in exploring whether the officers should be "federalized." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the option was debated in 2004 and discarded in 2005.

Bryan Wilkes , spokesman for the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, said no compelling reason was found that justified converting the officers into federal employees. "What we have is working great," he said.

But the National Council of Security Police, a union group representing officers at nuclear facilities, thinks the department's plans will undercut the goal of enhanced security in the post-Sept. 11 world.

In the past, nuclear weapons plants have assigned officers to offensive and defensive positions. The Energy Department's policy shift is prompting plants to realign their security posture and convert more positions to the offense, union officials said.

For the offensive positions, a security officer must run a mile in 8 minutes and 30 seconds and complete a 40-yard dash in no more than 8 seconds. Defensive positions require a half-mile run in 4 minutes, 40 seconds, and a 40-yard dash in 8.5 seconds.

The union group said the physical fitness standards do not take into account a person's age or sex, placing officers in their 40s at a disadvantage. Hundreds of officers will not meet the standards for offensive positions and will be forced to take lower-paying jobs at the Energy Department plants or will be let go, union officials said.

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