with the current angst over se-curity swirling around our public institutions, it was just a matter of time before scrutiny fell on the nuclear industry and its sometimes dangerous complacency. Take the strange case of Mohamed Attiah.To hear union reps tell it, security at the Chalk River nuclear facility north of Ottawa where Attiah worked has never been what could be called iron-clad. Normally, an employee sticker on the windshield is enough to get you past the front gate. No backup ID required.
While full-time employees undergo a standard background check by CSIS before they're hired, contract employees apparently do not. Attiah was hired as a contract employee about 10 months ago.
He worked at Chalk River's sister facility in nearby Deep River, where his job was to tend to the mechanical operations of several buildings.
Egyptian by birth and a Canadian citizen, Attiah has lived in this country for 27 years. He has four children, all born in Canada. But on September 21, he was suddenly declared a security risk and fired. He says he hasn't been told why.
"It is beyond imagination," he says.
No one in authority -- neither the managers at the plant nor the bureaucrats at Atomic Energy Control Ltd. in Ottawa -- will talk. AECL spokesperson Louise Duhamel refers all questions to the RCMP. "I'm not making any comment," says Duhamel. The RCMP aren't saying much about the affair either, except to say that no charges were laid.
"We cannot as a matter of course comment on any investigation," says Sergeant Marc Richer.
But it appears the vehicle Attiah drove to and from work raised eyebrows at the plant, where managers were in the middle of implementing tighter security provisions. The car is fitted with New York licence plates.
At the same time, investigators in the U.S. were examining links between the 19 hijackers suspected in the New York and Washington attacks and people licensed to transport hazardous goods, including radioactive material.
Those links have brought U.S. investigators to Canada, where a former Boston cab driver who spent several years in Toronto and recently skipped out on a scheduled court appearance in St. Catharines is being sought.
And what of Attiah? Is he a victim of hysteria? Over-reaction?
Canadian law enforcement officials have been eager to counteract harsh criticisms, particularly from U.S. legislators, that Canada is a haven for terrorists. They've followed up on more than 3,600 leads since September 11.
Although the RCMP isn't getting into particulars, it appears the U.S. embassy in Ottawa has brought in FBI agents to bolster law enforcement efforts here.
Tighter security at Chalk River now means that all cars entering and leaving the facility are searched. AECL is not saying whether contract employees are undergoing enhanced security checks.
Joe Ahrens, head of the union representing scientists and engineers at Chalk River, suspects they haven't been -- until recently.
Of Attiah, he says, "My suspicion is that they didn't conduct a security check when they hired him, then went back and found something."
Meanwhile, Attiah remains mystified. He says he had no criminal record or any political affiliation that would cause concern before he came to Canada from Egypt.
In fact, he spent three years in the Canadian army reserves. He says he was also promised a permanent position at the plant before all hell broke loose.
The New York licence plates can be explained. He says he's been working for a small consulting firm in the U.S. for most of the last three years, commuting back and forth.
Legally, however, Attiah doesn't have much recourse. As a contract employee, he's not represented by the union. Unfortunate rumours, he says, have also begun swirling among the townsfolk in Deep River.
"I'm just asking for a fair dialogue," Attiah says. "If they find something there, I have a right to know what it is and be able to clarify it. It could be wrong. It could be incomplete. This is a totally arbitrary decision."
Attiah's case has been raised in the House by his local MP, Alliance member Cheryl Gallant. But she, too, has been unable to get answers.