Millstone security: A work in progress
Waterford — Every month, in the backyard of Connecticut's only operating nuclear power station, a once-uncommon event takes place: security experts convene to share classified information about public safety.
Before Sept. 11, 2001, this just didn't happen.
Waterford police Chief Murray Pendleton leads the one-hour sessions that address the potential for a terrorist attack on a site with unique vulnerabilities.
After everyone gives their report, they go around the room again to see if any new issues have arisen as a result of sharing that information, Pendleton said in a recent interview.
The Millstone Nuclear Power Plant Security Working Group includes representatives from state and local police; the state department of Energy and Environmental Protection; the state department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security; the FBI; the federal Transportation Security Administration; the U.S. Coast Guard; the U.S. Army; and the Naval Submarine Base.
"Before 9/11, there was limited interaction and, in some cases, almost a disconnect" among those responsible for community safety, Pendleton said. "Since 9/11, it's been a world of difference."
History has taught emergency professionals "a very important lesson," Pendleton said: "You can't complete the mission by yourself."
Today, reactor sites across the country are protected with more safety measures, manpower and vigilance than before 9/11, industry officials and lawmakers say. This includes procedures and equipment updates for security-guard training and more thorough background checks of employees.
It also includes bullet-proof barriers for backup diesel generators, which provide power in an emergency.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has upgraded qualification and renewal requirements for security officers since 9/11, so they have to demonstrate proficiency more often, said David Lochbaum, an industry critic and nuclear engineer with the watchdog group Union of Concerned Scientists.
"The benefit is, you have security guards better prepared to defend the plant," Lochbaum said.
An even more meaningful change, he said, is in the procedure for completing background checks to determine which workers can get a badge and walk around unescorted, a process known as access control.
Before 9/11, background paperwork and fingerprinting could be completed while the FBI check remained outstanding, allowing a new employee to work up to 180 days before the FBI response came back, Lochbaum said.
Before Sept. 11, "if you were a bad guy stealing someone's ID, you likely wouldn't wait, you'd start accessing the plant right away," he said. Now, the FBI produces results in 72 hours and the worker "can't go into the plant until the FBI gives you a green light," Lochbaum said.
Before 9/11, temporary access through this 180-day grace period occurred when criminal and military checks were not done in a timely way, according to the NRC.
Dan Dorman, NRC deputy director of the office of nuclear material safety and safeguards in Rockville, Md., and spokesman Neil Sheehan said that temporary access was always conditional, and could be pulled if necessary.
Dominion, which bought Millstone in the spring of 2001, has never had any malicious acts perpetrated at the nuclear complex, said spokesman Ken Holt.
Extensive criminal and psychological background tests, regular and random drug and alcohol testing and behavioral observation for every employee at least once every five years is routine, said Philipp Baumann, Dominion manager of protective services.
"And the closer you get to the protected features of the station, the more frequent your checks," he said.
The tightened procedures are a relief, Lochbaum said.
"It's not an absolute protection against sabotage," he said, "but it's a big step forward."
Nuclear security information is reported annually to Congress in two reports, one confidential, one public.
"Some of the details you wouldn't want bad guys to have at their fingertips," Dorman said, pointing to industrywide security enhancements that include everything from guard towers to fatigue management.
"We consider this to be a balancing act. (After 9/11), we didn't sit on our laurels. We didn't say, '9/11, that didn't happen at a nuke plant, so it's not about us.' We looked at the security environment we operated in and made changes," Dorman said.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal have visited Millstone in the past year. Security at Millstone "is in many respects almost tighter than the sub base," Courtney said. "You have to be vetted before going in there, and they have lots of checkpoints. To me, it's pretty impressive."
Millstone operators are always alert to ways to thwart internal sabotage or terrorist threats like ramming a plane into a spent fuel pool, where radioactive waste is stored, Baumann said.
After 9/11, the NRC implemented orders, or security directives to make sure reactor owners could protect against an insider attack, water-borne and airborne threats, land-based assaults as well as vehicle bombs. The confidential orders later were built into regulatory requirements, Dorman said.
The result is a more rigid program where the NRC can "come in and test us on these things," Dominion's Baumann said.
No fly zones implemented after 9/11 are not in place over nuclear reactors today because they are impractical for commerce and enforcement, Dorman and Sheehan said. Instead, the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits "loitering," while reactor owners and the North American Aerospace Defense Command monitor that airspace.
"My only real beef is, there are some things that take far too long to make changes," said Pendleton, the Waterford police chief.
He wanted the NRC to address what would happen if extremely heavy barriers had to be moved to allow off-site emergency access at Millstone. "It got done eventually (last month)," he said. "The bad news is, it took five years to do it."
"We understand the frustration," Sheehan said. "But I think everybody was on the same page trying to get these issues resolved as quickly as possible."
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