Too Hot to Handle
Restricting access to nuclear material continues to be a top priority
- By Katie McCarthy
- Jun 01, 2006
NUCLEAR waste carries a lot of weight within the world. In fact, by 2015, 77,000 pounds of it will be stored within the Yucca Mountain dump in Nevada. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, waste has been a major concern, not only for environmental and health reasons, but also as a dangerous weapon in the hands of terrorists.
Nuclear energy alone has the potential for terrorist attack. Crashing a plane into a nuclear power plant could have the same effects as a radiological bomb or could cause a meltdown of the reactor core. Unauthorized access to highly sensitive materials also could give terrorist the ability to kill hundreds of thousands of people.
Waste is a growing concern because it could be used to build a "dirty bomb." The bomb would consist of by-products from nuclear reactors combined with conventional explosives. Once that bomb is detonated, deadly radioactive materials will fill the air inciting disaster.
Nuclear power management is crucial to protecting the public. As the world finds itself in the midst of an energy crisis, nuclear energy has a strong presence now and will in the future.
With 104 nuclear power reactors currently licensed to operate in the United States, 20 percent of the nation's electricity is being produced by nuclear power.
The United States holds radioactive waste at more than 70 locations in 31 states, according the Center for Defense Information.
Creating and storing waste aren't the only issues. Transportation is a major concern. Nuclear waste travels across the country and even oceans. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, it will take more than 100,000 trucks to move all the waste to Yucca Mountain. And they've predicted up to 66 accidents.
The nuclear market is in a state of new focus. In 2000, Congress established the Nuclear National Security Administration which watches our supply of nuclear weapons and works to reduce the danger of weapons overseas.
For the public, concern about nuclear power and terrorism has grown since Sept. 11. Nuclear security also is growing as professionals focus on proper protection and treatment, keeping nuclear facilities locked down and waste out of the wrong hands.
A combination of physical and electronic systems, protecting a nuclear facility is about setting up a comprehensive plan that protects critical material from possible threats on several levels. Making sure that the entire facility is a secured facility is key to preventing unauthorized access. The first step is to understand the building.
Like other high security locations, understanding the end user is important. Before a system can be installed, a threat assessment must be completed to know what the risks are. Specific systems can be designed to address each security need and resolve current problems. Electronic systems are particularly important because they provide integration between many different types of security and as technology advances, operators are able to see more.
"You're not going to be surprised, every access point is monitored. Any breach of security, any attempted access whether it be a valid access or an invalid access, you see it coming, and the system sees it," said Tom Hammer, executive vice president, Norment Security Group.
Using many technologies, Norment, along with parent company CompuDyne Corp., has had a long history in setting up systems for facility management. Hammer says systems have to be protected from the outside first. A combination of walls, fences and controlled access points are the first barrier. One of the best technologies being used to protect a perimeter is a fiber-optic sensing control system. With the ability to adapt to any physical perimeter, the technology is impervious to weather and temperature. It also provides protection against false alarms.
"It's not a nuisance alarm; it's going to be a real alarm. Someone is trying to cut through or climb a fence or are attempting to approach a secure entrance," Hammer said.
With fiber-optic technology, security operators are able to know where the threat is coming from and activate physical barriers from their control centers. It is this type of integration that keeps the whole complex secure. Multiple systems are linked together through a program logic control. That way security operatives can use several different technologies including access control, intrusion detection, CCTV, lighting and communication systems along with the perimeter detection.
By designing a comprehensive system, monitoring a nuclear facility becomes more about how much information an operative has at hand. Only staff and security are allowed access to highly sensitive areas and an audit trail is always in place, not just for the facility, but for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well. And that access is hard to gain.
"It's not enough to just present your access control card at the reader in the front of the door," Hammer said.
Every door is remotely controlled and accessed through several technologies. A high-security access point, like a secured computer room or an active plant control room, can use several layers of security. There may be a card reader at the door, as well as a pin reader that may trigger a CCTV camera. From there, a security operative may pull up the camera information as well as digital images of authorized security personnel before making the final decision of who gets to enter.
Developing this comprehensive system lets operators control and monitor everything that is going on and has technology increases, networks are letting operatives share information between many control centers and remote sites. A comprehensive system also allows for backup command in case of an emergency and even networks outside of the facility to call for help.
A good system focuses on understanding possible threats and providing equipment that deals with and respond to those threats.
The threat of nuclear terrorism has facilities concerned about the very latest technology to detect invisible threats. Preventing someone form bringing unauthorized material is an essential layer of protection.
"What we are trying to do is identify anyone that could be a risk," said Delia Garced, marketing director of government and military, GE Security.
A new addition to the market, the EntryScan4 portal, detects trace particles of explosives. The portal also can detect trace particles of narcotics. Security operatives will know if anyone coming to enter the facility has been in contact with either substance.
For nuclear facilities, detection is critical. If an explosive reached the reactor, the result would be disastrous. The portal has also employed the best technology to make sure that portals fit the space limitations set by the NRC and keep traffic moving throughout the facility. And scanning for explosives may be just one area that security market will continue to develop for the future. Dirty bombs, chemical and biological weapons are all threats that need solutions.
"We are not only working on today's threats. After Sept. 11, a lot of the concerns were around explosives, but there are new threats coming out that we are working towards having solutions and making sure that our customers are prepared," said Garced.
Leaving the Building
As protected as nuclear facilities are, the problem of what happens once waste leaves the building is still an issue. Although nuclear waste is a potential aid to terrorists, it is often misunderstood.
"I often ask this question 'What would bother you more, a tanker load of gasoline driving by your house or a truckload of hazardous waste?' And the answer is almost always hazardous waste," said Dr. Lou Centofanti, president of Perma-Fix Environmental Services Inc.
The answer should be the gasoline. A truckload of hazardous waste is usually a truckload of dirt with traces of radioactive material in it swept up from the floors of reactors or a weapon plant.
There are two realities of waste, a perceived reality and technical reality. The public sometimes doesn't understand the types of waste and the treatment of waste. Nuclear waste has a reputation stemming from fear of the unknown.
"It's a material that you can't see and can't feel. So the perception is negative," said Centofanti.
It's not all scare tactics. The public has a very long memory that includes the disaster in Love Canal, N.Y., and Super fund sites that continued to be cleaned by EPA. Centofanti believes that we have become better at treating waste than in the early days of nuclear technology.
Nuclear waste has different threats levels; the most common kind is low-level waste where the risks are extremely low. Treatment and storage of waste is extremely important. If waste is low-level or medium-level waste, a company like Perma-Fix will treat it.
Radioactive waste goes through a chemical treatment at nuclear waste management facilities that solidifies the waste. Waste is then capsulated for storage. This process brings the terror risk down. A terrorist getting their hands on low-level solidified waste doesn't pose much of a threat, according to Centofanti.
High-risk waste is destined for the Yucca Mountain site. This waste presents the greatest threat and would be ideal for terrorist. This waste will go through the same solidification rendering it unable to spill or explode, according to the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. The risk associated with this waste is the tens of thousands of years it will emit radiation. It is a safety concern.
Not to be trusted in the hands of civilians, nuclear material is being guarded by professionals dedicated to security and safety. Nuclear security is ensuring our future isn't too hot to handle.