ORNL, 9/11 and Bethel Valley Road

East portal to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Tuesday, Sep. 30, 2014. (MICHAEL PATRICK/NEWS SENTINEL)

Entrance to Oak Ridge National Laboratory on Bethel Valley Road. (KNS photo/Michael Patrick)

On the heels of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Oak Ridge National Laboratory closed its entrances, setting up security portals on Bethel Valley Road to the east and west of the lab. No longer could vehicles proceed toward or travel through the Department of Energy lab without a security pass.

This security measure was an unhappy development for folks who were used to using Bethel Valley Road as a shortcut between Interstate 40 and various paths to Knoxville or Oak Ridge, and it was disappointing to anyone accustomed to having ready access to ORNL — at least for a “windshield tour” — to show visitors one of the nation’s great science labs.

No one, however, was more impacted than those businesses located in the Bethel Valley Industrial Park just outside the southeastern boundary of DOE’s Oak Ridge reservation. No longer were those businesses accessible from the west.

Recognizing the hardship on employees of companies in the industrial park, ORNL issued passes on an annual basis that allowed them to pass through the security gates on the way to work and back. This was especially important to those who lived in parts of Roane and Loudon Counties or even the western parts of Knox.

Fifteen years later, however, ORNL has revisited that policy and is tightening the travel restrictions.

While those industrial park employees with prior security passes are reportedly being “grandfathered” under the new policy and allowed to continue passing through the ORNL property to and from work, new employees will not be given the same kind of access.

Some folks aren’t happy about this development — notably the head of Protomet Corp., an engineering firm with big expansion plans at its Bethel Valley site and possibly elsewhere.

“It’s insane,” said Jeff Bohanan, president of Protomet. “We’re talking about adding a couple of hundred employees and they are basically putting us on a dead-end street.”

Bohanan said ORNL’s actions seem to contradict Oak Ridge efforts to attract and keep more businesses.

“It’s ludicrous in my opinion,” he said, noting that even the employees with current security passes have to get them renewed on an annual basis.

Bohanan said Protomet is looking at various locations for expansion, and he said the new restrictions on Bethel Valley Road will be one of the factors weighed.

David Keim, the lab’s communications director, said the change was simply the result of a review of the 15-year-old policy.

Keim wasn’t specific about what was driving the policy change, but he said it wasn’t related to any new security threats.

“It was just a review of procedures for these badges,” he said.

“We’re a closed site,” Keim emphasized. “The badges were provided to alleviate a unique hardship when the site was closed in 2001. It was done because it created an unexpected hardship. And it’s not an unexpected hardship anymore.”

Keim said ORNL approved 43 badges in January for use during 2016. He also said the lab has and will consider exceptions to the policy where needed. For instance, he said, one person was able to get a security pass approved because of “a child-care situation” that needed access to the road passing through the lab.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.