Official Says Government Studying Security Contract at Y-12 Nuclear Facility

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (AP) -- Recent incidents at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant have prompted the government to consider turning security over to the plant's operating contractor, a federal spokesman said.

``We expect to make a decision within the next few weeks,'' Walter Perry of the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge office told The Knoxville News Sentinel.

The National Nuclear Security Administration recently signed a six-month contract extension with Wackenhut Services, the company that has provided security at Y-12 since 2000.

Wackenhut also has a contract with DOE for the remainder of the government's Oak Ridge facilities, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Federal Office Building.

BWXT is the warhead plant's operating contractor.

Within the past year, there have been several negative reports about security at the complex.

In September, as six guards were practicing reload techniques with semiautomatic handguns -- supposedly using inert ammunition that looks like real bullets -- a live bullet was discharged and struck a refrigerator. No one was injured.

And in January, a federal inspector general's report accused Wackenhut's 400-plus contractor guard force of cheating on performance drills.

Perry said DOE plans to extend its security contract with Wackenhut for one year, through January 2006, and then seek bids for a new, long-term contract. The plan is to keep security services under a separate contract, he said, with the contractor reporting directly to the federal agency.

But with Y-12, Perry said NNSA is considering three options for security: seek bids on a new federal contract; offer the job as a subcontract, with the security company reporting to BWXT; or make security services a part of BWXT's management contract.

Proponents believe consolidating the Y-12 roles would help eliminate communication problems between the plant's overall management and the security team. But Wackenhut would like to keep security as a separate contract at Y-12.

``We believe we have made dramatic improvements in the protective force,'' said Lee Brooks, Wackenhut's deputy general manager in Oak Ridge.

BWXT reportedly has been pushing the government to give it total responsibility for security operations at Y-12, but the company skirted that issue when asked about its preferences.

``It is well known that there are a number of options available to the government for security at Y-12,'' BWXT spokesman Mike Monnett said.

The Y-12 complex is a 4,700-employee, 811-acre compound of 700 mostly aging brick and cement block buildings 20 miles west of Knoxville. It's been described as the last full-scale nuclear weapons production facility in the United States.

The plant was created in the 1940s to enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II. Today, it makes parts for every warhead in the nuclear arsenal and is the country's primary repository for bomb-grade uranium.