SRS drone update leaves questions unanswered

Last June, a dozen unmanned aerial system, or drone, sightings over Savannah River Site set investigations into motion, including help from federal entities.

 

At Monday’s first day of the SRS Citizens Advisory Board bimonthlymeeting, the Department of Energy presented an update publicly for the first time since the drone sightings began.

When the sightings were reported, sitewide announcements were broadcast on the facility’s loudspeaker system. Security alert emails were delivered to employees, and security guards began inspecting vehicles leaving barricades in an attempt to find the pilot and drone.

Nearly a year later, though, the DOE said no drones have been found or confirmed. According to the presentation, 12 sightings were reported, four of which were determined to be unconfirmed and not worthy of further investigation. Sightings were reported over all reactor areas across the 310-square-mile site, often miles away from any of the perimeters.

The DOE presentation focused on FAA regulations and definitions regarding drone use and SRS airspace. Airspace over the site is listed as a part of the national airspace system and is subject to tighter regulations as a national security area. That means airmen and pilots are informed via FAA Notice to Airmen asking them to voluntarily avoid the SRS airspace. It also asks that all pilots avoid flying below 2,000 feet.

When the investigations began in 2016, outspoken site critic and SRS Watch founder Tom Clements was interviewed by the FBI.

“SRS security personnel got the FBI to question me about a matter which I had no knowledge,” Clements said.

Clements, who is based in Columbia, said the investigation into an area out of his field of knowledge led him to believe the drone scare was “bogus.”

In November, he sent a request to the DOE for drone documentation under the Freedom of Information Act. Nearly six months into 2017, his request remains unfilled. He said he got notification Monday that his request was sent to the Department of Transportation, but pointed out that his request was specific to SRS documents related to the drone flights.

He said the presentation, focused on regulations and not on the investigation, left the public with little substantial information.

“Given how quickly SRS stopped talking about the supposed drone scare and their refusal to talk about it since the summer of 2016, it is no surprise that SRS has nothing of substance to say about the matter,” Clements said.

The DOE presenters said they don’t know how many regulations were broken by the drones. The FAA regulations – Code of Federal Regulations, Part 107 – were officially installed within weeks of the first sighting at SRS.

The DOE presentation said current security personnel on site have been used to identify drones over SRS airspace. The DOE said officials from its National Nuclear Security Administration branch discussed options with the FAA regarding on regulating drone operation over sensitive DOE facilities, including SRS.

Reach Thomas Gardiner at (706) 823-3339 or thomas.gardiner@augustachronicle.com.

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