Protecting against nuclear threats
Protecting against nuclear threats

Mar 1, 2000 12:00 PM

The threat of nuclear terrorism is often dismissed as too horrific to even consider. There are, however, more than a few terrorist experts who believe the threat of an assault on a nuclear power plant is very real. Even as the press focuses on problems associated with stolen weapons-grade nuclear materials, particularly those originating from the former Soviet Union, a greater threat may actually be an attack on a nuclear power plant, experts warn.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is an independent agency established by the U.S. Congress under the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 to ensure that nuclear power plants are operated without compromising the public health and safety, the common defense and security, and the environment. The NRC regulates commercial nuclear power reactors and non-power research, test, and training reactors fuel cycle facilities. It is also responsible for medical, academic and industrial uses of nuclear materials, and the transport, storage and disposal of nuclear materials and waste.

The NRC routinely deals with security issues. Federal oversight committees and reports by the U.S. Government Accounting Office have been extremely critical of security within the nuclear power industry. For years, many observers and several federal oversight committees have been concerned about a report on the potential for damage from truck bombs. Shortly after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, the NRC commissioned the Sandia National Laboratories to conduct a study of the threat posed to nuclear facilities by truck bombs. The study, completed in 1984, concluded: "Unacceptable damage to vital reactor systems could occur from a relatively small charge at close setback distances, and from larger but still reasonably-sized charges at large setback distances, greater than the protected area for most plants."

A nuclear power plant houses more than a thousand times the radiation that would be released in an atomic bomb. Accordingly, the magnitude of a single attack could reach beyond 100,000 deaths and the immediate loss of tens of billions of dollars. With more than 100 reactors in the United States alone, the security of these plants may be the biggest challenge ever to face suppliers of security systems.

The NRC must confront these security challenges. As technology advances, so do the solutions. One perimeter protection technology, Perimbar from Vindicator Technologies, is used to prevent the infiltration of plant borders by unauthorized individuals. Vindicator has been developing and manufacturing electronic security products since 1973. These security systems are in use today by United States Army, Navy and Air Force facilities; at federal, state and local correctional institutions; and at various industrial sites.

The Perimbar perimeter barriers comprise an array of modulated and synchronized infrared beams, fitted in indoor/outdoor columns. Perimbars are constructed from heavy-duty aluminum extrusions with special filter material windows on three sides, which conceal beam positions, directions and patterns. External active infrared detection has been in use since the late 1920s. These detectors use active infrared beams to detect unauthorized entrance or movements through an invisible barrier. An active infrared beam, also called a photoelectric beam, is a sensor that transmits a focused infrared beam to a photocell. An alarm is signalled if the beam is interrupted.

Ken Whippich is a product manufacturer representative of Denning Electronics, specializing in high specification physical and electronic security equipment. Whippich says the Vindicator Perimbar is used at nuclear power sites for outdoor intrusion detection around (water) intake structures and on building walls and rooftops.

The Code of Federal Regulations outlines performance requirements for protection of nuclear materials and facilities, says Whippich. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission publishes regulatory guides describing the expected system functions and the acceptable methods and types of equipment that can be used in these environments. Licensees (nuclear power generating firms) review this information and prepare specific solutions for their facilities, taking into consideration ease of implementation, equipment cost, etc. "We, as representatives, assist licensees in the equipment evaluation process," says Whippich. "If the NRC accepts a licensee's proposal, we are able to sell the equipment.

Active infrared detection has up until now struggled with the one great downfall that plagues so many security systems: the false alarm. Using active infrared detectors, alarms are triggered by a variety of events that are not distinguishable, an unacceptable problem in the high security environment of nuclear power plants. In an effort to combat the problem, Perimbar has a feature called Lunar: an Intelligent Beam Break Analysis. Lunar is a 150-meter active infrared beam detection system, which is available with 25 or 64 beam paths depending upon application requirements. The towers feature climb-over detection as well as standard anti-tamper. The standard Perimbar tower is re-configured to provide a large number of independent beam paths creating a web-like detection pattern. Individual beam breaks are then reported and analyzed by the system's main processor. The processor uses complex mathematical models to provide security staff with a graphical representation of the size and shape of the object that has passed though the beams. The formula used within the system presents the user with detailed information on the exact beams that have been broken and the calculated position of the intruder. Because all of the beams are shown, the margin of error (if any) can also be represented.

Each of the horizontal beam-breaks is shown plotted against time at the bottom of the user screen, allowing the user to determine the outline of the intruder. Because the height of the beam towers is known, the size of the object can be determined. If an animal or some object activates the beam, it would be instantly apparent on the screen. The graph may be manipulated to aid in identification of the image.

Aligning traditional beam towers can be a time-consuming task. Lunar processing allows the engineer to see the percentage of alignment at a glance along with the output status for each post. This information is displayed on a hand-held terminal or laptop for field setup. The result of this innovation is a patented system that can accurately control camera pre-sets, therefore avoiding a large area search. It also provides a clear indication of the size and shape of the object that has caused the alarm, even in adverse weather or lighting conditions. The profile and sizing information is classified as an alarm, activity or nuisance by the operator and then fed into the system log.

CCTV has been installed at many sites using active or passive infrared detection, but with mixed results. Though cameras are effective in some cases, verification of alarms, especially at external sites, can be hindered by weather and light conditions. Unless the cameras are equipped with thermal imaging devices some scenes will be missed or unidentifiable. Another difficulty is pinpointing the exact location of an alarm. With infrared beams capable of reaching up to and in excess of 200 meters, the result is detection of a potential intruder located anywhere within a 200-meter wide zone.

Lunar has a built-in log that records the time and date of every event and that also allows for operator comments. In addition, the operator is required to accept and classify each alarm event. The information logged can be useful to determine patterns of nuisance activation.

The user interface is provided by an industrial computer that is supplied with a custom graphics package. It allows the user to have a complete map of his site and clearly indicates the position of every transmitter and receiver along with detailed information on the status of all equipment parts. Additional functions such as battery monitoring, tamper alarms, beam alignment and synchronization are available to the user.

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