(Author’s Note: Nothing in this article violates any secure or safeguarded information. All of the information contained herein is open source or the author’s personal knowledge and verified by open-source research.)

In the days following September 11, 2001, to be anywhere outside of small town, USA invoked fear of being “on the X” when the next attack occurred. If the first attacks were indicative of a pattern, then large structures, especially those with any symbolism, were prime targets and were to be avoided. Of those, nuclear industry infrastructure, including power plants and storage facilities, were high on the list. While no attacks on the industry have occurred to date, it is worth revisiting nuclear security and its current state of readiness.

Historically, securing nuclear facilities has been a much discussed, but often misunderstood, topic. I worked as an armed security officer in the industry for a number of years, and while my time was spent at one generating plant, I was able to gain a healthy, but grudging, respect for most of the men and women who I worked with and for, and the industry as a whole. The issue at stake here, however, is that when it comes to critical infrastructure (much like in military or other national-security-related jobs), personnel selection and a bit of bureaucracy could mean the difference between an attack’s success and failure. And so far, the industry has gotten it right.

It should be noted that most industry experts (which I am not, but I agree) believe that the chances of there being an orchestrated attack on a nuclear power plant are slim. Could an attack happen? Of course. Anyone with a grudge and a rifle or pistol could make even a half-hearted attempt and cause some damage. But the likelihood that a concerted, well-armed attack would happen, and be successful, are nil.

Calvert Cliffs
Calver Cliffs Nuclear Plant. Photo courtesy: Enformable.com/Lucas W. Hixson

And I say this not because they don’t have the will, but more so they lack the way. But, call me paranoid (as some have already accused me of being), whether it happens or not, or could happen or not, it must be at least considered so that a plan is in place. It is only when we don’t have one that it…or something similar to it..will happen. Because Mr. Murphy (no relation to Jack) hates all things safe—and all things nuclear. Blessedly for us, a plan is in place, and so far has not had to be used.

In early September 2014, a reporter and photographer from the The Daily Caller claimed that they were able to drive onto the grounds of the nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs, Maryland, about 50 miles outside of Washington D.C., through a main gate and within close proximity to the reactor building, all without once being challenged by security personnel (see the article detailing their alleged break-in here). You can view the video they filmed, here.

To be fair, anyone not familiar with how a power plant is set up might perceive what appears to be an unchallenged intrusion as alarming and scary (hell, to those who are familiar with it, it’s alarming). But some of the claims made by the report might be taken with a grain of salt. I was able to speak with Frank R., a 10-year quick-reaction force member at a northeast nuclear power plant, and after viewing the video and reading the commentary and article, he had this to say:

What you see in the Calvert Cliffs video is, in my opinion, ignorance of fact. The person filming was doing so in what is known as the owner-controlled area, or OCA. The OCA, however close it may appear to be in proximity to the reactor, is still well outside of the protected area. In most stations, the OCA can be accessed by civilians for any number of official, but mundane reasons. Knowing that every plant utilizes an in-depth security plan with layers of defenses, if the person filming actually attempted to make it into a crucial area, they would have been challenged instantly by the on-duty SRT Team. If you are not badged personnel, then you have access to nothing of consequence within a nuclear facility. There was no great security breach in this video, no hole in the defense of the reactor, and certainly not the story it claims to be.”

Again, to soothe the paranoia beast, and without giving any secrets away, it must be said that simply attacking (and even overrunning) a nuclear power plant does not mean that a massive meltdown will occur. There are a hell of a lot more things that would need to happen (and I will never say what they are) for that to occur. And even a well-trained armed element would have a hard time just getting to the fence line.

Nuclear power facilities are designed to withstand any number of “incidents,” to include natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Defense is arrayed in-depth, in layers. There are jersey barriers, stand-off points of entry, CCTV cameras, alarmed fences, and other physical obstacles. Additionally, the training and equipment that nuclear security officers are given (at least as far as my knowledge of the industry goes) are on par with the basic, and some advanced, training for that of many Special Response and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams across the nation. (Queue up the “oh hell’s naw!” music.)

And as an added layer to this defense in-depth, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) website:

“Another layer of protection is in place for coordinating threat information and response. The NRC works closely with the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, intelligence agencies, the departments of Defense and Energy, states, and local law enforcement. These relationships ensure the NRC can act quickly on any threats to its licensed facilities.”

Security officers are (now, this was not always the case) stringently vetted both physically and mentally, and a thorough background check is conducted prior to the final hiring. Training in policy and procedures, in both security and nuclear safety, is conducted regularly, as are weapons and tactics. At least once every three years (sometimes more) and at announced times (for public safety and reassurance), the NRC conducts force-on-force (FoF) drills to test plant security procedure, and the NRC site has this to say about it:

“FOF inspections assess a nuclear plant’s physical protection measures to defend against the ‘design basis threat’, or DBT. The DBT describes an adversary that plant owners must protect against with physical protection systems and response strategies. The NRC periodically reassesses the DBT and makes revisions as necessary.”Backgrounder on Force on Force Security Inspections

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Much of what goes into the drills are considered Safeguards Information, which is protected from public disclosure under the Atomic Energy Act, but what can be said is this: The FoF utilizes a composite adversary force (CAF) made up of nuclear-security personnel trained to NRC standards to aid in the testing of plant security. Standards for the CAF cover the skills and physical-fitness qualifications of team members, team tactics, communications and planning, firearms knowledge and proficiency, and exercise-simulation equipment. The drills are as realistic as they can be, and a hot wash is conducted afterward to recognize what worked and what did not, with each participating officer having his or her turn to speak on their actions. Lessons learned are used to reinforce or make changes to procedure.

Just like in the military and any other lumbering bureaucracy, changes to policy happen for two reasons: because of an incident sparked by an external force, or because someone on the inside screwed up. In the former, it is usually something big, and in the case of the military or other government agencies, the changes made would make sense to anyone looking in. But in the latter, sometimes the changes seem miniscule. For example, a rash of security incidents stemming from personnel sleeping on duty resulted in changes to tour post rotations and other safety measures that improved personnel mental and physical health and a reduction in incidents. FoF drill results have spurned not only changes in tactics, but changes in weapons systems, hardened posts, and even some of the gear that are worn by personnel.

So, God forbid that something happens in the future, the nuclear industry has gotten it right thus far. Incidents happen, and yes, one incident is too many, but in this case, when humans are involved, a “zero-tolerance” policy may be a bit unrealistic. The NRC will continue to learn from incidents, train and drill its personnel, and when it is time to hire new ones, vet them thoroughly and put them on the fence line. For now, nuclear facilities  continue to be the hard target.

(Featured Image Courtesy: Baltimore Sun)

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