DOE beefs up security on uranium transport

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   ERWIN -- The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and America's ongoing war on terror have heightened security at defense facilities in the public and private sector around the country.
   How intense updated security is remains top-secret, according to the nation's nuclear regulatory compliance agency and an Erwin company that has specialized in uranium and plutonium production for five decades.
   Luis Reyes, regional administrator of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) Region II office in Atlanta, said Wednesday that facilities dealing with non-defense related materials were directed to enhance security following 9-11.
   "As a result of 9-11, all facilities all across the country were directed to enhance their facility's security," said Reyes, who characterized Nuclear Fuels Services' (NFS) security prior to 9-11 as "very robust". Upgrades nationwide have included training additional security guards, adding weapons, and building barricades to facility entrances.
   NRC officials held a public meeting at NFS yesterday to discuss the company's annual performance review.
   NFS is seeking two license amendments to downblend low-enriched uranium -- a process frequently referred to as the "Bleu Project". Two petitions requesting a public hearing on the amendments have been filed by an individual and a consortium of environmental groups.
   The issue of transporting weapons-grade uranium involved in Bleu to NFS was raised by representatives of the environmental groups attending Wednesday's meeting.
   The U.S. Department of Energy oversees the movement of non-defense related materials through the department's National Transportation Program. According to the department's Web site, the DOE ships its materials by all modes of transportation through commercial and private carriers.
   During the 1997 fiscal year, the DOE reported transporting 430,000 shipments of non-defense related materials, which consisted of 412,000 (96 percent) non-hazardous shipments, 18,000 (four percent) hazardous materials, of which 5,200 (less than one percent) was radioactive. These radioactive materials shipments are less than one percent of total shipments. In FY 1997 the distribution of modes was: air, 77 percent; motor vehicle, 22 percent; and rail, less than one percent.
   The DOE uses U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) authorized packagings for its non-defense transportation activities. Designed to minimize the risk of materials release during transportation, NRC certified packagings are used for spent fuel shipments. DOT and NRC prescribe the kinds of packages to be used depending on the material being shipped.
   Reyes said some NRC members held "top secret" clearances with regard to the logistics of transporting non-defense related shipments of uranium. Citing the stringency of security around uranium transportation, he declined to discuss specific measures of the Department of Energy and Department of Defense. He did state that of any person or group that tried to commandeer a shipment of uranium, "Your life would be very limited".
   NFS spokesman Tony Treadway declined to divulge any specifics of security the company has implemented except to say the company had stepped up on-site security considerably.
   The nation's Homeland Security advisory condition has remained at the high "orange" level since the U.S. military initiated Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 18.
   In terms of NFS on-site security, Reyes also said prior to 9-11 the NRC had employed persons he characterized as "contracted" persons with knowledge of facility safety to attempt to enter the NFS facility.
   Those operations had been suspended shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Reyes said. "We felt that if the public saw a group of individuals attempting to enter the facility, they would think it was an actual terrorist attack," said Reyes. However, Reyes added that those infiltration measures could be reinstituted in the future to monitor the facility's security complex.