One of the reasons I work as a safety person at a research university is the variety. On any given day, I have no idea what it is I am going to be asked to do and I like it that way. While this may sound like hell to people who like well-defined duties and schedules, please keep in mind that a safety person’s day is supposed to be dull. If our day is exciting, that means someone else is having a Very Bad Time™. This means we spend a lot of time trying to think through work before it’s done, to keep it compliant and within the boundaries of the regulations, and do our damnedest to make sure that Very Bad Time™ never happens.
That’s fine at a typical workplace. Research universities are not typical workplaces. When a group of physics students presents you with an aluminum block, some scotch tape, a roach clip, a servo motor, and a bell jar coating chamber and smugly ask how to register all the scotch tape on the campus as radiation producing machines, you’re waaaaay out in the weeds, far away from typical*. At typical workplaces, this means locking things down and regimenting them such that you don’t ever end up in off-normal situations. That doesn’t work with research.
So, my favorite thing is being presented with a problem where it is beyond the imagination of the current regs. Usually when I tell researchers they’re off the regulatory map, they get a little despondent as they’ve been acculturated that this means “No, you can’t do this.” I then get to brighten their day and tell them they’re looking at this all wrong. In America, research is part of the freedom of expression under the first amendment, you have a right to think and explore. I generally look for something in the regs close to what they’ve proposed to do and the work out a way to let them feel comfortable enough with their work that they’d be happy to let a regulator look at it. When you do this right, you become the “Do it like THIS” example that is used for new regulations.
But when you get out to those fringes of the regs, you start running into weird interactions and overlaps. Your formerly strict, ironclad rules start getting a whoooole lot of *¹†‡₂ attached to them to let you know “This is the rule 99.995% of the time, except for all these times.” Where this gets particularly exciting is when two regulatory bodies disagree on what is supposed to be done for the same special case. And when is it most exciting? Why, it’s when you hit law enforcement and add guns to regulatory conflict!
STORY TIME BEGINS! (please note, vagueness in details is intentional)
Once upon a time, there was a new worker that applied to work at the nuclear facility. Because it is a nuclear facility, there are some places you aren’t allowed to go to until your background check is completed and you have clearance. This is a thing management knows and understands, but they certainly don’t want to be paying you to do nothing. And so, they have created an uncleared area where these new workers can be escorted to and do all of their training while waiting for the background check to come back. It is called the Green Room. Because there tends to be A LOT of training and certifications involved with working at nuclear facilities and background checks are slow, workers could end up in the Green Room for months.
But this particular worker had a problem. It seems that he had some outstanding warrants. Normally, this would be a call to the local police to pick him up and present the worker to the court. Or maybe you’d call the sheriff or state troopers if those warrants were for another part of the state. But no, this particular worker’s warrants were federal with interstate pursuit. There was no need to call anyone to come pick this guy up; the flag came up with a notification “A US Marshal is on the way to apprehend the fugitive.”
And that’s fine. If there’s one thing a nuclear facility is, it’s secure, and he isn’t going anywhere. Nuclear facilities also have their own quasi-law enforcement called Protective Force Officers of Special Protection Officers. I have previously referred to the Big Guys With Guns. This is them. When you enter a nuclear facility, there is going a sign that may be somewhat short and terse or have a whole lot of verbiage explaining Do’s and Don’ts. The signs all end with the same phrase: DEADLY FORCE IS AUTHORIZED. These officers are some of the best shots America has. They would like you to be clear that you won’t even know where the bullet that kills you comes from when you try to do something shady at a nuclear facility, just that you will be very dead. It is the PFO’s job to make sure no threats enter a DOE or NRC licensed nuclear facility and protect special nuclear material from theft. Here’s their enabling language in the regs.
The US Marshals have a very special power that is reserved to them that almost no other law enforcement entity has: interstate fugitive pursuit. A US Marshal’s jurisdiction is quite literally anywhere they might have to go to pursue a fugitive. This includes Antarctica and orbit as some special cases.
And so, the marshal showed up at the badge office for the facility. While the marshal is a law enforcement officer and thus someone who has clearly passed a background check, the marshal isn’t cleared to enter all the places and see all the things at the nuclear facility. The marshal will need an authorized escort from the cleared staff of the facility. One of the health physicists gets tagged to greet the marshal. The events that followed went something like this.
Health Physicist: Welcome to $FACILITY. Your guy is the Green Room right now. We’ll go get him and bring him to you.
Marshal: No. You will take me to him so I can arrest him.
HP: Okay, well let’s get you badged in.
[annoying visitor badge issuance process ensues]
HP: Alright let’s head in. [approaches metal detector at the entry portal]
PFO: Please empty your pockets, take off your belt and surrender your firearm before going through the metal detector…
M: I am not surrendering my firearm in pursuit of a fugitive.
PFO: You will if you want to enter this facility
M: [takes a step forward] Are you impeding a marshal in the execution of his duties?
PFO: [raises rifle] Step away from the portal.
M: [hand on pistol] I am a US Marshal!
PFO: [says nothing, aim does not waver]
HP: WHOA! How about we all call our supervisors and straighten this out?
After a few phone calls, the guy was brought out to the very huffy, but still alive, marshal.
You see, a US Marshal’s authority while in pursuit extends almost anywhere. There are a whole lot of regulations that are universal, riiiiight up to the point they hit the fence line of a nuclear facility. At that point, NRC or DOE regulations have supremacy, including shooting an arrogant US Marshal through the heart if necessary to prevent an unauthorized firearm from entering the facility. If he had been less of a wannabe Wyatt Earp asshole, everything would have been fine. Big Guys With Guns would have accompanied him to make the arrest if the marshal really, really felt the need to have armed men present.
The moral of the story is that thing you are utterly sure of probably has an exception to the rule.
*: Yes, this actually happened. As a physicist myself, I am well-prepared for the assholery of my people. They didn’t like my very reasonable answer and went away less smug. It went something like this. You want to play games with the rules? I love games.