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Homeland Security guards watch over 'complex' situation

Mary Ann Thomas
| Saturday, June 16, 2012, 8:07 p.m.

Heavily armed guards from the Department of Homeland Security are patrolling a former nuclear waste dump in Parks as the Army Corps of Engineers rethinks its cleanup there after finding more "complex" nuclear material than expected, officials said.

"The elevated security measures were put in place at the request of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is managing the cleanup, and are not related to a specific threat in the area," said Scott McConnell, spokesman for the National Protection and Programs Directorate, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

The dump along Route 66 operated from about 1960 to the early 1970s, receiving nuclear and chemical waste from the former Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in Apollo and Parks. The Corps took over jurisdiction of the cleanup in 2002.

Before the Corps started prepping the 44-acre site several years ago, a chain-link fence and nuclear warning placards were the only visible barriers between the public and the contaminated site. Within the last nine months, a stone wall has been erected behind the site's material handling building and near the site entrance.

"We believe it is best not to discuss security measures at our sites," said Candice Walters, a spokeswoman at Corps' headquarters in Washington.

Such tight security implies that cleanup crews may have discovered classified nuclear materials in the disposal trenches, according to nuclear energy and waste activists.

"If there are nuclear materials and equipment of concern, it's probably a good thing that they improved site security," said Tom Clements, the nonproliferation policy director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability in Columbia, S.C.

Neither the Corps nor the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would define exactly what complex nuclear material was found at the dump site. The cleanup contractor, Cabrera Services, described it as "sensitive" material when filing an application with the NRC on March 2 to amend its license to handle nuclear material.

Col. Butch Graham, Army Corps of Engineers commander of the Pittsburgh District, has declined to publicly release details on what nuclear materials have been dug up, saying that the Corps will release that information when the cleanup is done.

Graham said Corps' headquarters is asking "if we should continue the project under the current program ... given that it is expected to cost more or are there other methods and organizations suited to do this job to address the contamination in the field."

Work continues on packaging and shipping contaminants, but digging is not expected to resume anytime soon, the Corps said. The scope of work and the price tag has ballooned.

Originally set at $170 million, the Corps' estimate ranges from $250 million to $500 million, with a time frame of up to a decade.

The cleanup was commissioned under the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, which was designed to address sites typically contaminated with low levels of radioactive and mixed wastes used in early programs involving nuclear weapon production and peacetime activities from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Digging at the Parks site ceased approximately six weeks after excavation of waste pits began last year, when a contractor allegedly mishandled some nuclear material and "complex" nuclear material was found, Corps officials have said.

McConnell said the security measures result from "an abundance of caution." Guards from the Federal Protective Service, part of the Department of Homeland Security have been posted for about a year.

The use of armed guards to patrol a low-level nuclear waste dump is "extremely unusual," said Marvin Resnikoff, a senior associate of Radioactive Waste Management Associates, in Bells Falls, Vt.

"There's ordinarily no security issues at these waste dumps," he said. "Ordinarily, there are private guards."

Lindsey Geisler, spokeswoman for the Department of Energy, which is responsible for the largest and most dangerous cleanups of nuclear waste, said the department takes a "graded approach at each site to ensure the protection of safeguards and security interests, meaning we aim to keep the level of security at any given site directly proportional to the needs of that site."

"We're always improving security," said Graham. He declined to elaborate on security details at the Park site.

"The fact that there is an abundant amount of federal protection security tells me that Category 1 type material was found, which mandates the elevated security," Leechburg activist Patty Ameno said.

Category I special nuclear material, when in specified forms and quantities, can be used to construct an improvised nuclear device capable of producing a nuclear explosion. No government official associated with the Parks site has said that Category 1 material has been found there.

"I am thrilled about the security," Ameno said. "But disclosure and transparency is a must and a right of the people."

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