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Drone reports at SC nuclear weapons site spark federal scrutiny

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The Washington State Department of Transportation flew a video-equipped drone through the construction site of a new Washington State Route 99 tunnel, to show Seattle Tunnel Partners’ construction progress. On an average day, the tunnel is bustlin

COLUMBIA, SC Reports of drones over the Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex are drawing scrutiny from the federal government.

Agents with the FBI interviewed a prominent nuclear watchdog this week about drones at the site. Meanwhile, the SRS “protective force” has confirmed several sightings of drones in June over the complex near Aiken, the U.S. Department of Energy said Thursday afternoon.

“SRS takes these reports very seriously and is coordinating with appropriate federal, state, and local authorities,’’ an Energy Department statement said.

Agency spokesman Monte Volk said he did not know who was flying the drones over SRS or why they were being brought into the site’s air space. He declined further comment.

Drones, remotely controlled flying machines, are used increasingly across the country for business and recreational purposes. But they also are a security concern in the face of the war on terrorism. The Savannah River Site, a 310-square-mile complex, is filled with nuclear materials and nuclear waste. The site is heavily guarded.

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an advisory warning pilots to avoid airspace above nuclear power plants, military sites and similar areas. The FAA also recently introduced a series of rules for drones addressing how high they can fly. The rules say drones should be flown no more than 400 feet above ground or within 400 feet of a building.

Mark Keel, chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, said his agency is aware of the drone sightings at SRS and “they have got our attention.’’ Keel said he could not comment on the specific situation, but generally speaking, drones are a security concern.

“Drones flying over any critical infrastructure, government facility, military base — with the environment we are living in today — would be a concern to law enforcement and homeland security officials,’’ Keel said.

Tom Clements, a Savannah River Site critic since the late 1980s, said two FBI agents questioned him Monday about his knowledge of drones at SRS. His non-profit organization, Savannah River Site Watch, has published aerial photographs of SRS facilities, primarily the troubled mixed oxide fuel plant.

But Clements said those photographs were taken from an airplane flying in compliance with FAA regulations. Clements questioned why the federal government wanted to meet with him about drones. His organization has been publishing aerial photographs of SRS for several years, he said.

Clements said he had the impression the agents had only begun to research the issue and were exploring possible leads. The FBI agents were trying to clarify questions about the drones at the “valid requests of SRS security personnel,’’ Clements said.

“I know nothing about it,’’ Clements said of the reports of drones. “I think (the agents) were not well informed about my organization or the situation.’’

Attempts to reach the FBI were unsuccessful Thursday evening.

Vincent Van Brunt, a member of a state nuclear task force that examines issues at SRS, said any concerns about a nuclear site need to be kept in context with other potential threats.

“I would not like to have a drone over any restricted air space,’’ he said.

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