Nuclear plant safety

18 August 2006, 1405 EDT

“We’re talking a whole lot worse than Three Mile Island,” he said. “If an insider knows where the target sets are, in other words, the way to damage the reactor or to blow a hole in the spent fuel pool, it would be a hell of lot worse than anything we’ve ever seen in this country before.”

Peter Stockman, Senior Investigator, Project on Government Oversight (POGO)

Widely read blogger-journalists Kevin Drum and Andrew Sullivan are noting the growing questions about last week’s airline terror plot and arrests.

Drum points to some sources who justifiably question the ease of making binary explosives on planes, while Sullivan points to the Craig Murray post I mentioned earlier this week. Here’s Sullivan’s pithy comment:

I wish I didn’t find these questions popping into my head. But the alternative is to trust the Bush administration.

Been there. Done that. Learned my lesson.

More doubts are summarized by Drum here and here.

Even as the media has focused tremendous attention on the successful disruption of an alleged serious threat to security, they have virtually ignored a potentially serious recent security breach at a major American nuclear power plant. So far, I’ve seen only a few local newspaper and TV reports.

Granted, the breach was of procedure and protocol, and did not involve actual (potential) terrorists, but I would argue that it is indicative of the misdirection of resources and attention in the ongoing “war on terror.”

I received this troubling August 15 press release from POGO (the Project On Government Oversight) via email:

POGO has received a report of a security lapse that occurred at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant. Officials discovered last week that a sealed manufacturer’s crate that had sat in a warehouse for an undetermined amount of time contained 30 M-4 assault rifles, which are similar to semiautomatic M16 rifles.

So far, there’s been no update from POGO, though I did find a wire story (UPI) that provides additional information and context. UPI reveals that the container of weapons had not been inspected upon arrival — inspection was not required and even after the plant revamped the procedures there are still many containers that are not inspected — and were stored in the wrong place for 24 hours before their discovery:

Officials acknowledged the security lapse at the facility, saying personnel “inadvertently” transported the factory-sealed shipment of weapons to an incorrect warehouse.

“They delivered the right cargo to the right people; it was inadvertently taken to the wrong warehouse,” TVA spokesman John Moulton told UPI in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Moulton said TVA was expecting the shipment of weapons without any ammunition for use by the private security personnel contracted by Pinkerton Government Services, Inc. The weapons were, however, inadvertently transported to the wrong warehouse, rather than the armory section of the nuclear facility.

The rifles had been delivered by a truck that entered the plant through the vehicle entrance into the Protected Area.

The UPI reporter managed to talk to a whistleblower who confirmed the magnitude of the screwup:

A Pinkerton security employee with first-hand knowledge of the incident told UPI on condition of anonymity Wednesday that the brown cardboard box of weapons had been mislabeled and slipped past numerous checkpoints at the nuclear site. Personnel at Pinkerton were strongly discouraged to speak to the media, the employee said.

“It should only take one, no less than two checkpoints to identify it (the box of weapons),” the employee said. “(There were) four chances for those weapons to be discovered on that day and they weren’t.”

The whistleblower thinks this is a big deal, reflective of a larger problem:

The employee said little has been done at the facility despite repeated warnings of potential vulnerabilities made to Pinkerton, TVA and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Complaints of possible threats to security, the employee said, were “scoffed at.”

“I told them that this very thing could happen,” the employee said. “I’m not the only one who has been singing this song.

“TVA and Pinkerton royally screwed up.”

Indeed, the Project on Government Oversight and other organizations have repeatedly emphasized the relatively weak post-9/11 security measures taken to protect America’s nuclear power reactors.

According to the nuclear power industry:

“Commercial nuclear plants are among the most secure industrial facilities in the world.

…nuclear plants have implemented more than 30 security directives from the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission]. These include: augmented security forces, increased patrols, additional security posts and physical barriers, moving vehicle-checkpoints further away from buildings, greater coordination with law enforcement and more restrictive control of site access. There have been no credible threats against a U.S. nuclear plant since the 9/11 attacks.”

Peter Stockman, the spokesperson and Senior Investigator for POGO quoted above, is referenced in the UPI story:

“There are really terrible procedures allowing this to happen,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Stockton said if disgruntled insiders knew about this vulnerability and were able to bring weapons and explosives into the nuclear facility, there may be irreparable damage.

For those who suspect a political agenda here….Yes, I’ll criticize the Bush administration when it fails to make common sense security improvements, even as it inflates threats from terrorism and hypes apparently overblown cases — all at the expense of its domestic political opponents.

And yes, I would praise the administration when it succeeds, but I haven’t seen much evidence of achievement. Who can point us to their significant security successes?

Oh, wait, I almost forgot: “Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead.”

Filed as: