Friday, March 18, 2005

Illegal Alien Gets Into Nuclear Plant

3 men used bogus Social Security numbers to work at Crystal River.

By Cory Reiss
Ledger Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other agencies are investigating how at least one illegal immigrant used a false Social Security number to work inside the Crystal River nuclear power plant.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security detained three Mexican citizens at the site Thursday and charged them with entering the country illegally. At least one worked inside the nuclear complex under supervision, a spokesman for the power plant said.

All three men used false Social Security numbers to obtain work through a contractor for Progress Energy, which owns the site north of Tampa that includes one nuclear reactor and four coalfired power generators, according to the company and an immigration spokeswoman.

The incident raised concerns about soft spots in nuclear security that terrorists could exploit.

"Of all the places where an illegal alien should not be, this is like at the top of the list," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Republican who lives near the plant, which is in her congressional district.

Browne-Waite's 5th Congressional District includes the northern portion of Polk County.

Progress Energy and a spokesman for the NRC said there was never any danger, even if the men were intent on doing harm -- something no one claims.

Workers that were part of a crew doing maintenance and painting were under constant supervision in the nuclear complex and went through standard metal detector and X-ray-screening, they said.

All three men used driver's licenses to enter the facility after an initial computer check of their Social Security numbers failed to alert Progress Energy that they were either fake or stolen, said Rick Kimble, a Progress spokesman in Raleigh, N.C.

Brown-Waite said the arrests show why Congress should pass legislation that would set nationwide standards for issuing driver's licenses. Supporters of the bill, known as the Real ID Act, say it is needed to deter terrorists from obtaining identification relied on by airlines and other industries. The House has passed the bill, but the Senate has not.

Several people involved said agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigation also were on the Crystal River site Thursday. State law enforcement has been involved, a company memorandum says. Neither agency would confirm or deny that.

The detained men were employees of Texas-based Brock Specialty Services, which supplies maintenance workers at a variety of facilities around the country.

The immigration spokeswoman said a U.S. attorney in Texas is considering charging the men with crimes related to counterfeit documents they allegedly gave to Brock to prove they could be legally employed.

Brock Specialty Services gave Progress Energy a list of names and Social Security numbers before its work crew arrived at the site, Kimble said. Progress Energy ran those numbers through national law enforcement databases but no red flags popped up, he said.

Kimble said only Social Security numbers that have been flagged with a criminal record or other problem would come back with an alert. A person could use the number of someone who is actually dead and the company wouldn't know it, or the number could be totally false with the same result, he said.

Only one of the three men arrested is known to have entered the nuclear complex. He did some painting in a turbine facility but not near any sensitive nuclear equipment, Kimble said. The other two were detained elsewhere on the property, he said.

Progress faulted Brock Specialty Services, which it says is responsible for checking its employees' identities. Brock issued a statement that said there was no security breach at Crystal River and that it followed all required procedures.

Kimble said Progress Energy, which also does not consider the incident a security breach, has not fired the contractor but expects Brock to cooperate with investigators. The power company says it can't be responsible for the veracity of driver's licenses.

Progress Energy investigated and notified authorities after a union organization sent a letter on Wednesday alleging that seven Brock employees had fraudulent Social Security numbers. Kimble said several of those numbers checked out, however.

The Florida Gulf Coast Building and Construction Trades Council saw the matter as a labor violation, at the very least.

"It's now a basic issue of the safety and security of the surrounding community," said Michael Jeske, treasurer of the council.

Brown-Waite said she would continue to press the issue.

"Obviously the guidelines are not as airtight or as reassuring as we would want them to be," she said.
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