January 10, 2002
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – A day after a dismissed California nuclear power plant worker was arrested for allegedly threatening colleagues, U.S. power industry officials said he stood few chances of ever delivering those threats on the job. The nuclear power industry, already on high alert following the deadly Sept. 11 attacks, runs its employees through a tough gauntlet of checks aimed at weeding out anyone who might jeopardize plant safety.
The arrest Tuesday of a maintenance mechanic, who last month lost his job at the San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern California, drove home the need for that vigilance.
Acting on allegations that the unidentified 43-year-old had threatened former supervisors and coworkers, Orange County sheriff’s deputies found some 200 rifles and ammunition stashed at his Laguna Niguel home and in a nearby rented storage shed.
Plant officials said the man had not threatened the San Onofre plant itself, which lies near the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base just north of San Diego.
San Onofre, which houses two of the nation’s 103 reactors, is operated by Southern California Edison, a subsidiary of Edison International.
Nuclear industry officials said internal security breaches were extremely rare, and any charges brought against the man would likely focus on threats to employees, not the plant. The nation’s nuclear power plants, because they use potentially deadly radioactive fuel, operate under some of the strictest security measures of any industry in the world.
“Someone is not going to break into a work place at a nuclear power plant without armed resistance,” said Jeff Lewis, a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant on California’s central coast. “It’s not an easy target whether they are a terrorist or a former employee.”
At Diablo Canyon, security is enforced by guards in black, commando-style uniforms armed with automatic rifles and semi-automatic handguns – common throughout the industry.
“These are not rent-a-cops,” said Paul Gaukler, an attorney with Shaw Pittman, a Washington law firm that represents utilities operating nuclear power plants. “The security forces go through very detailed training. Two-thirds of all security personnel are former military or law enforcement officers,” Gaulker said.
Many of the 5,000 guards protecting the nation’s nuclear power stations can point to display cases at the plants stuffed with marksmanship awards, a skill several plant operators help them keep polished by providing on-site target ranges.
To ensure the guards don’t lose their edge, their rigorous training regime requires that they be able to repel an assault on the plant and assumes that any attack is being aided by someone on the inside. Managing to work under this constant air of suspicion requires strict discipline at the plants and constant surveillance by cameras mounted throughout the plants.
To gain clearance, the nation’s 100,000 nuclear power plant workers must undergo the same background checks used to screen FBI agents. Screeners check their previous employment records and ensure they have never been in trouble with the law. They are also given an extensive psychological evaluation aimed at gauging their emotional stability.
Once past these barriers, they are subjected to random drug and alcohol tests, which the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires be administered to at least 50 percent of plant employees each year. On top of all that, plant supervisors are enrolled in what is called a Continuous Behavior Observation Program designed to help them quickly identify quirky or suspicious behavior among any of their subordinates.
When potential employees clear all of the above, they then face a battery of security checks just to get into the plant. Each day they troop through extremely sensitive metal detectors, show a badge holding a small computer chip full of personal data, and run their hands through a palm scanner.
Security has been further beefed up since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with a ban on plant visits by nonessential personnel, more guards on duty, and new barriers in place to keep cars and trucks a safe distance away in case they are carrying bombs.
Several states have also deployed National Guard troops to keep an extra eye on local reactors, while “nautical exclusion zones” have been extended to protect lake or seaside plants.
So far the extra efforts have paid off. The last serious effort to penetrate a plant’s security zone was in 1993, when a person with a history of mental illness harmlessly crashed a car into the outer gates of the Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania.