In Kentucky, a Security Response after Finding Drugs inside Nuclear Facility

PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) - More than two dozen employees at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant will be tested for drugs after the discovery of a bag that contained methamphetamine residue and pipes.

The small bag was found outside a building in the compound early Saturday.

Results of the drug tests on managers, guards and some hourly workers who were in the area where the bag was found will be available Wednesday, said Elizabeth Stuckle, spokeswoman for United States Enrichment Corp. The company leases the plant from the Energy Department to process uranium for use as nuclear power plant fuel.

"We will do whatever we have to do to preclude a drug problem at the plant," Stuckle said. "But we don't think there is one now."

Twenty-six employees were ordered to take the drug test.

United States Enrichment is conducting an internal investigation to determine how the bag was brought into the high-security complex, and the McCracken County sheriff's office is leading the criminal investigation, officials said.

The company said it notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after the bag was found.

Laura Schachter, an Energy Department spokeswoman, declined to comment because of the ongoing investigations.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is responsible for protecting public safety and health at nuclear facilities, will monitor the company's investigation, spokesman Ken Clark said.

Stuckle said the presence of illegal drugs has been rare at the plant, noting that this was only the second such incident in 10 years. But Stuckle added that the company does not perform random drug tests on employees. Testing is done only when there is some underlying reason for it, she said.

Workers entering through the plant's security fence are screened for weapons and explosives with a metal detector and a sniffing device but are not routinely searched for drugs, she said.

Anyone testing positive for drug use at the plant faces a variety of disciplinary actions up to and including firing, Stuckle said.

Authorities say the presence of meth is increasing in the workplace, and the number of meth arrests and discoveries of meth labs have soared.

The number of meth labs in Kentucky increased from 104 in 2000 to 579 last year, according to Gov. Ernie Fletcher's office. Indictments for manufacturing and trafficking in meth climbed to 1,854 this fiscal year, from 336 cases in 1998-99 - a 452 percent increase, according to the state court system.

Bill Cossler, vice president of Local 5-550 of the PACE/United Steelworkers Union, which represents hundreds of hourly workers at the site, said he was concerned about the discovery. In such a heavy industrial setting, any worker who is impaired could place others at risk, he said.

Mistakes, as well as equipment malfunctions, can result in the release of uranium hexafluoride, a mildly radioactive but toxic gas that is compressed and filtered to trap and separate uranium for reactor fuel.

Cossler said the level of supervision and monitoring throughout the plant would make it almost impossible for a worker's mistakes to go unnoticed, and the area where bag was found is regularly walked by security guards.

Security at the plant is adequate, he said.

"I know I pass through a metal detector and a sniffer, and any bags or packages I have are searched," Cossler said. "It is easier to catch an international flight than it is to get into this plant."


Information from: The Courier-Journal,