updated 3/16/2004 7:36:41 PM ET 2004-03-17T00:36:41

Nuclear weapons plants have eliminated or reduced training for guards responsible for repelling terrorist attacks, leaving the government unable to guarantee the plants can be adequately defended, the Energy Department’s internal watchdog said Tuesday.

One plant has reduced training hours by 40 percent, and some plants conduct tactical training only in classrooms, according to a report from the department’s inspector general.

Some contractors fear that injuries among guards during training exercises could reduce bonus payments from the government, the report said. Guards typically receive 320 hours of training.

Only one of 10 plants surveyed, Hanford, Wash., trains guards in the basic use of a shotgun, according to the report. None of the plants teaches guards how to rappel down buildings or cliffs because of concerns that guards might be injured. The report noted that one guard died rappelling in 1995.

Lack of coordination
“Inconsistent training methods may increase the risk that the department’s protective forces will not be able to safely respond to security incidents or will use excessive levels of force,” said the report prepared by Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman’s office.

It said changes in training weren’t coordinated. At some plants training was deemed too dangerous; other plants continued to offer the same exercises.

Investigators interviewed instructors who “could not understand how personnel at one site could deem a practice acceptable while others would refuse to administer the block of training using prescribed levels of force.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration, which protects nuclear plants, acknowledged in a letter responding to the inspector general that training for guards has suffered because of overtime demands at weapons plants. It promised to review training to make sure it was adequate.

New criticisms
The criticisms were the latest leveled against the government’s ability to protect nuclear facilities, long considered prime targets for espionage and terrorist attacks.

The inspector general complained in January that security guards who repelled four simulated terrorist attacks at the Y-12 weapons plant in Tennessee had been tipped in advance. The plant processes parts for nuclear weapons and maintains vast supplies of bomb-grade uranium.

That earlier report determined that at least two guards defending the mock attacks had been allowed to look at computer simulations one day before the attacks, and it also uncovered more evidence of cheating during mock attacks against U.S. nuclear plants over the past two decades.

Fighting in slow motion
The newest report said some of the nation’s weapons plants aren’t adequately training guards how to use handcuffs, fight hand-to-hand or defend against terrorists in vehicles. In some cases, mock fighting during exercises is performed in slow motion to avoid injuries.

“Defense tactics training should be as realistic as possible,” the inspector general’s report said. “Anything less may rob the trainee of the exposure to the levels of force, panic and confusion that are usually present during an actual attack and increase the possibility of an inappropriate response in high-stress situations.”

At some weapons plants, for example, instructors used wooden mock-ups or removed windshields from the vehicles of mock terrorists for safety. But experts said that prevents guards from learning how glass affects gunfire or the visibility of a target inside.

The report said all 10 weapons plants surveyed have reduced guard training in at least two important areas.

The plants were the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.; the Nevada Test Site near Nellis Air Force Base; the Oak Ridge Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; the Rocky Flats Environmental Technology Site near Denver; the Hanford site; Sandia National Laboratories in California; the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas; the Savannah River Site in South Carolina; the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico; and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

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