The French arm of Greenpeace is probably searching for a few new recruits after two of its activists were arrested today by French authorities for paragliding onto the grounds of the Bugey nuclear energy facility and dropping a smoke bomb. The stunt is nothing more than a political ploy by the organization to expose what it calls, “gaps,” in nuclear plant security ahead of the French presidential election. However, plant owner EDF assures the public that no such security gaps exist and that the plant remained safe and secure despite today’s criminal activity:
Safety at the installation was never called into question. Safety measures put in place at the end of 2011 allowed the detection and immediate arrest of the intruder.
But, some people still wrongly believe that the criminal activity proves just how easily someone could intrude a nuclear plant and wreak havoc. To their false notions, I’d like to point out a few facts about nuclear plant security.
First, simply landing at a nuclear energy facility via a paraglider is about the same as watching a feather land on a bucket of water. Nuclear energy facilities are highly fortified structures with many built-in, redundant safety measures, making it nearly impossible to penetrate the reactor and cause a radiation release.
The reactor is protected by roughly 4 feet of steel-reinforced concrete with a thick steel liner and the reactor vessel is made of steel about 6 inches thick. The steel-reinforced concrete containment structures are designed to withstand the impact of natural disasters as well as airborne objects with a substantial force.
Research by the Electric Power Research Institute after 9/11 confirmed the latter part of these scenarios in a 2002 study on the impact of an unexpected jetliner attack. The study results found that the structures that house reactor fuel can adequately guard against a release of radiation in the event of a terrorist strike by a large, fully fueled Boeing 767-400. The state-of-the-art computer modeling techniques used in the study determined that the areas of the plant most vulnerable to radiation release—including used fuel storage pools or the nuclear reactor—could withstand the impact forces despite concrete crushing and bent steel on the containment structures.
NEI has a video that shows the different layers of protection in a reactor containment structure and also the impact to a jetliner if it were to strike one of these elaborate structures (around the 1:30-mark).
As you can see in the video, a jetliner that strikes a nuclear energy facility at roughly 350 miles per hour (about the same speed as the aircraft that struck the Pentagon on September 11) does more harm to the plane than the structure. One can only imagine what dire consequences would come to a paraglider if he or she were to strike a nuclear energy facility at the same force!
Second, if the paraglider actually was a terrorist who had attempted to fly into a reactor and cause damage, he would have had a lot more to worry about—including the French military.
Threats of aerial attack are serious scenarios that are handled with great care by the military and air traffic control. These types of attacks are not something that government authorities, or nuclear energy facilities, take lightly and given such a scenario, there are provisions in place to “neutralize” the attacker. In fact, after the Greenpeace stunt, EDF’s head of the nuclear division Dominique Miniere confirmed this point.
The case of aircraft approaching nuclear plants is handled with great care and the French air force intervenes to divert airplanes violating--generally by mistake--the no-fly zone around nuclear plants, he said. "Sometimes airplanes get lost and they get the scare of their life," Miniere said.
This type of high-level, interagency security is mirrored in the United States, making U.S. nuclear energy facilities some of the best-defended facilities among the nation’s critical infrastructure. The utilities that operate the plant monitor the airspace around the nuclear energy facility and the government and the Transportation Security Administration protect the area.
After talking to NEI’s Security Director Dave Kline this morning about the Greenpeace stunt, he reassured me that U.S. nuclear plants are very secure facilities:
I am very confident that the U.S. plants would identify and neutralize any threats related to paragliders.
Put that way, I think Kline fully captures the ridiculousness of stunts by Greenpeace activists to show the “threat of aerial attack.” It only begs the question…what’s next? Hot air balloooning over a facility?
In the French case, officials were able to make the determination that the paraglider and his accomplice were not trying to cause harm, but rather, to make a political statement. This is why they arrested the activists immediately after the demonstration. In the future, I’d hate to hear about the copycat stuntman who meets a different fate and learns firsthand what the word “neutralize” means…