Intruders jump fence at U.S. nuclear reactor that uses bomb-grade fuel

According to an article posted to the Thomas Reuters Foundation News web page, two people jumped a security fence at a GE Hitachi research reactor near San Francisco this afternoon. According to the article a notice was received from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that intruders had “jumped” a security perimeter fence at the Vallecitos reactor in Alameda County CA this afternoon, then “escaped”, but were later “detained” outside the facility. The article is short on details but leaves one with the impression that the facility was protected by a simple fence that could be easily circumvented. While it’s still early in the reporting process, additional facts will no doubt come to light regarding the event and probably add some details regarding general security at the site. For obvious reasons details on specific safeguards employed at the site probable won’t be released but suffice it to say that the intruders would have encountered much more than a simple perimeter fence.

The NRC and its licensees use what’s referred to as Design Basis Threat (DBT) in designing security safeguard systems intended to protect against radiological sabotage and to prevent theft of special nuclear material (e.g., Plutonium, uranium-233, or uranium enriched in the isotopes uranium-233 or uranium-235). The DBT as described in detail in Title 10, Section 73.1(a), of the Code of Federal Regulations [10 CFR 73.1(a)] is basically a profile of the type, composition, and capabilities of an adversary. Each site must design their physical and electronic safeguards to defend against that level of threat. Sandia National Laboratories hosts NRC course S-201, NRC Materials Control, Security Systems, and Principals at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque NM. As part of that course, students are instructed on the development of perimeter intrusion, detection, and assessment systems (PIDAS) that typically include multiple fence lines, a variety of intrusion detection sensors, closed circuit television, perimeter lighting, and include the application of delay technology for personnel and vehicles. It is likely that the GE Hitachi site employed multiple fence lines with additional detection, delay, and assessment layers that an intruder would need to navigate before reaching the inner fence line.  The concept is that the security response force would be alerted in sufficient time to neutralize any intruders before they were able to breach any facilities containing special nuclear material.

All that being said, there have been monumental screw-ups in the past when a combination of poor maintenance, lack of adequate training and general complacency have resulted in high profile incidents at nuclear facilities in the US. During the early morning hours of 28 July 2012 an elderly nun accompanied by two fellow peace activists entered the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge TN. After cutting their way through the outer perimeter fence at the Y-12 facility – once considered as the “Fort Knox” for highly enriched uranium, the group continued on for a mile, cutting their way through four more fences until they found themselves confronted by signs on an inner fence that indicated lethal force was authorized. Instead of departing they spray-painted messages and threw human blood on a building that housed highly enriched uranium. Shortly afterwards they approached a security officer parked in his vehicle and surrendered. For those that are interested in the details, a copy of the DOE Inspector report can be found here.

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