The problems involve policies, salaries and equipment-including weapons-that can vary widely from site to site, in addition to concerns that increasingly rigorous training requirements could make it harder for employees of private companies to work until retirement age.
One option that has been discussed off and on for the past decade involves "federalization," or replacing the private firms with U.S. military soldiers. It was most recently explored in a 2009 study, but subsequently rejected as an alternative.
"Although DOE rejected federalization as an option in 2009 because it believed that the transition would be costly and would yield little, if any, increase in security effectiveness, the department recognized that the current contracting approach could be improved by greater standardization and by addressing personnel system issues," the GAO concluded.
The private workforce includes 2,339 unionized officers and 376 non-union supervisors who "are not uniformly managed, organized, staffed, trained, equipped, or compensated across the six DOE sites," the report said.
Savannah River Site's contractor, Florida-based Wackenhut Services Inc., has a local workforce of 823 and is in the process of downsizing to 756.
The other five sites that handle "special nuclear material" are Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico; the Y-12 National Security Complex, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Pantex Plant, near Amarillo, Texas; Nevada Test Site, Nevada; and Idaho National Laboratory, near Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Differences among the sites are often due to separate contracts and collective bargaining agreements between contractors and protective force unions, the report said. "As a result, the management and compensation-in terms of pay and benefits-of protective forces vary."
Arms and equipment also vary from site to site, the GAO noted.
Most forces, including those at SRS, rely upon the basic M4 U.S. military rifle, while heavier weapons-such as belt-fed machine guns-are generally versions of the M240 and M249 family, also widely used in the U.S. military.
"However, sites have variously adopted other equipment," the GAO study said, citing examples that included three separate models of handguns in two calibers; four different types of grenade launchers (although all four used standard 40 mm grenades); and multiple varieties of precision sniper rifles and armored vehicles.
The GAO also said the private security officers were less likely to become involved in traditional law enforcement as their mission's emphasis moves more to a "tactical response force" with duties more like the military than traditional law enforcement.
Such law enforcement duties, the GAO said, are handled differently from site to site, with SRS having one of the most defined programs.
"The SRS protective force includes 26 Special State Constables (about 5 percent of SRS's total protective force) who have state law enforcement jurisdiction on the 310-square-mile complex," the report said. "These officers wear special uniforms and drive specially marked vehicles. In addition, they must complete and maintain state law enforcement qualification requirements, in order to retain their state law enforcement authority."
Having officers designated for such duties, SRS officials told investigators, allows the remaining protective force personnel to focus on the primary mission of protecting nuclear weapon materials.
The GAO's recommendations include having the Energy Department explore options to standardize its protective force in terms of training and policies, and to conduct further research to enhance those employees' career longevity and retirement options.