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By Pamela Zerbinos
New interim security guidelines outlined by the US Department of Energy (DOE) are causing upheavals in the way some national laboratories handle their identification and access procedures. The guidelines went into effect on April 4. The restrictive measures taken include tying laboratory identification and access cards to visa status, as well as rescinding the exemptions granted to seven national labs due to the unclassified nature of their work. Final regulations are expected to be approved later this year.
The seven labs directly affected by the new guidelines are Ames Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Laboratory. These were exempt from much of the previous DOE directives concerning foreign visitors and assignments, because the work they perform is not classified. "Everyone expects a higher security standard when you're designing nuclear weapons," said John Womersley, co-spokesperson for Fermilab's DZero experiment. "What we were unprepared for is that this standard would be applied to us."
The prior exemption meant that the labs did not have to collect and report certain information on foreigners, including biographical and personal data; passport and visa information; the purpose of the visit; the actual areas and subjects to be visited, and the host and sponsoring organization of the visit. Under the new policy, this information is now to be collected and entered into DOE's Foreign Access Central Tracking System (FACTS). This translates into interviewing every foreign visitor to the seven labs to ensure that the DOE has their information on file. It also necessitates issuing new ID badges tied to their visas; when the visa expires, so does the ID badge. Scientists must go through the interviewing process all over again to acquire a new ID badge.
"This creates a problem when you have people who go back and forth regularly and who arrive after hours," said Womersley, "particularly on large collaborations like DZero which have many Western European scientists visiting the lab for a few days at a time every few months." Scientists from countries such as Great Britain, France and Germany do not need visas in order to enter the US; they come with a visa waiver, good for only 90 days, and hence need a new waiver every time they come to the US This means reapplying for laboratory identification on every trip. Furthermore, "They arrive after-hours and on weekends because that's usually when they can get cheap flights," says Womersley. "But there's not going to be anyone here at those times to issue them ID cards."
At Fermilab, ID badges grant access not only to the site itself, but to many of the buildings and experiment halls. Fermilab is attempting to solve the problem of after-hours access by issuing a visitor's pass to all users who previously held a Fermilab ID card. If a user is a member of the CDF or DZero collaborations, he or she will be issued a pre-encoded card allowing access to those experiments. The passes will only be valid through the next working day, when a regular ID card will be issued.
In the meantime, representatives of the international working groups at CDF and DZero have sent a letter of protest to Raymond Orbach, director of the DOE Office of Science, outlining the practical difficulties the new policies will cause for many collaborators and the repercussions they may cause throughout the international scientific community. Asserting that "the new access regulations introduce discrimination and instability," the letter asked Orbach to "do your utmost to maintain the excellent working conditions we have enjoyed at Fermilab, and to respect the international standards for access to pure research laboratories." According to Womersley, Orbach has acknowledged receipt of the letter and attempted to address these concerns, but his degree of success is not known.
"We're mostly concerned about the precedent this sets, and the message it sends regarding longer-term policy," said Womersley. Because the guidelines are only in effect until final regulations are approved, he hopes the final draft will include the exemptions rescinded by the interim guidelines. Interested parties can access the interim guidelines online at http://www.ig.doe.gov/pdf/ig-0579.pdf.
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