US pipelines, nuclear plants, dams seen vulnerable

Julie Vorman
October 19, 2001

WASHINGTON – A threat against the Three Mile Island nuclear plant was seen yesterday as a potent reminder about the vulnerability of energy supplies that keep U.S. home computers humming, cars and trucks rolling down the highways, and manufacturers’ assembly lines moving.

Some U.S. senators have urged billions of dollars be spent to protect American oil refineries, natural gas pipelines, hydropower dams and nuclear power plants. In the post-Sept. 11 world those facilities are highly desirable targets, they say.

Nuclear plants, which rank among the nation’s most closely guarded facilities, are of particular concern because an attack could spew radioactive contamination over hundreds of miles.

The Three Mile Island plant – the site of the worst U.S. nuclear accident a generation ago – set off alarm bells throughout the industry after receiving what it called a “credible threat” late Wednesday. The plant gave no details.

Two Pennsylvania airports were closed until early Yesterday and other unspecified precautions were taken until federal officials announced there was no longer any immediate danger.


Since the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the federal government has imposed new restrictions on air space and waterways near nuclear plants.

Some advocacy groups say that is not enough.

“I hope this Three Mile Island threat will serve as a wake-up call,” said Steven Dolley, research director of the non-profit Nuclear Control Institute. It has urged the government for years to impose stricter security at plants.

“We are especially concerned about the possibility of a commando-style ground attack to take over a nuclear plant with the assistance of an insider,” Dolley said. “There is also the risk of more conventional vehicle bomb attacks.”

The nation’s 103 plants, which provide about one-fifth of

U. S. electricity, are typically built near a lake, river or ocean for huge volumes of water needed to cool their reactors.

Nuclear plants have long been required to have armed guards, razor wire or fences, strict background checks of all employees and other monitoring devices.

Plants refuse to speak about new security precautions. However, it is known that since Sept. 11 governors in New York and New Jersey dispatched National Guard troops to protect nuclear plants. Massachusetts is considering a similar move.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission took the unprecedented step of halting Internet publication of its daily plant status report, fearing it could be used by terrorist organizations.


“What we learned from the terrorist attacks in September is that we were much too trusting as a nation in protecting our assets and people,” said Bob Cuomo, an energy expert with the consulting firm DRI-WEFA. “Much of the security already in place is not going to work with a very determined terrorist.”

But extra protection for oil pipelines criss-crossing the nation would be costly, he said. Most already have surveillance equipment monitoring a handful of key locations.

The risk became clear on Oct. 4 when the huge trans-Alaska pipeline was closed for three days after it was pierced by a bullet, in what was described as an act of drunken mischief.

A spokesman for Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles said that it was impossible to defend the entire 800-mile-long pipeline, which carries about 1 million barrels of oil each day.

Dams, which are key sources of electricity in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast, are also difficult to protect.

At the Grand Coulee and other dams, visitor centers were closed, gates closely monitored, and all employees and contractors must show identification. The dams and “ladders” that let salmon swim upriver to spawning grounds are among the Pacific Northwest’s favorite tourist spots.

“If somebody did try to take out part of the system, we are pretty confident we can go around the outage using backup systems,” said Mike Hansen, spokesman for Bonneville Power Authority, a federal hydropower agency. It manages electricity lines stretching from the Canada border to Southern California, forming the backbone of the Western power grid.

Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission stopped making public documents and maps that detail construction of interstate pipelines, power plants and hydropower dams.


The waterways adjacent to many refineries and nuclear plants are also a concern.

The U.S. Coast Guard has imposed 94 off-limits zones for boaters in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts as well as the Great Lakes. Fishing, recreation and other vessels face fines of $5,000 or more for entering the zones.

The biggest security zone extends one mile off California’s biggest nuclear plant, PG&E Corp’s Diablo Canyon station located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

At major ports, the U.S. Department of Transportation is evaluating security with an eye toward stricter measures. That has some companies worried about costs and red tape.

“In a free society with open trade, you cannot protect yourself against any potential scenario, whether it’s a nuclear power plant, a dam or a truck,” a shipping source said. “You can make yourself crazy.”

Some shippers at the Port of Duluth on Lake Superior, who previously thought their biggest risk was from drug smugglers or thieves, have added guards to restrict traffic to the docks along 49 miles of shoreline in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“The very word ‘security’ has changed dramatically where it’s now synonymous with anti-terrorism,” said port director Davis Helburg.

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