Activist takes a drive on TMI

Concertina wire tops fencing surrounding the protected area around the Three Mille Island nuclear power plant. CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE, The Patriot-News, 2007
BY GARRY LENTON / Of The Patriot-News,
11/09/07 6:19 PM EST

A nuclear safety activist and a photographer drove onto Three Mile Island on Thursday and spent more than 30 minutes photographing the plant without being challenged by security.

Eric Epstein, chairman of the watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert, said he and the photographer entered the island through the south gate and drove about a half mile to a parking lot. The location is about 200 yards from the high security area of the plant.

Epstein said he expected to be challenged by security guards at any moment, but wasn’t.

“It just became clear that we were not going to be challenged the farther we got onto the facility,” he said.

He called the experience disturbing and said it raised more questions about the adequacy of nuclear security.

But a spokesman for AmerGen Energy, the operator of the plant, said the only thing disturbing about the incident was that Epstein and the photographer trespassed on private property.

“From a nuclear security point of view, this poses no threat to the plant,” said Ralph DeSantis, spokesman for AmerGen.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which establishes security requirements for commercial nuclear reactors like TMI, said none of its procedures or requirements were violated, based on accounts provided by a reporter.

The state Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Radiation Protection also down played the event.

“These people were ... Outside the area where nuclear security can be compromised,” said Ron Ruman, a DEP spokesman. “Therefore, there was no reason for security personnel to act.”

Epstein said he crossed onto the island through the south gate, which is rarely used except when the plant is shut down for maintenance and refueling. TMI went off line for refueling two weeks ago.

During outages the south entrance is used by some 1,200 part-time employees hired to make repairs and upgrades at the plant.

Once across the bridge, Epstein drove to within 50 feet of a guard station, but made no attempt to go past it.

He said he saw no security officers during his visit.

Epstein said he was giving the photographer a drive-by tour of TMI when he noticed the gate to the south bridge was open and decided to go in.

“I was curious to see how far you could go without being stopped,” he said. “I was disturbed that I was able to penetrate that far onto the island without an impediment.”

The photographer declined comment.

Two years ago, AmerGen spent about $500,000 to build a fortified checkpoint that would stop vehicles using the south entrance from getting into the “protected” area of the plant. The checkpoint is about a half-mile from the south entrance and is only staffed during outages. The area, however, is under surveillance, officials said.

Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, found the lack of a security response disturbing.

The NRC on Thursday held a meeting on security issues and reiterated the need for plant owners to be aware of people even if they don’t approach the protected area fence, he said.

“The two individuals walking around taking pictures could have been terrorists casing the joint,” Lochbaum said. “Exelon security should have checked.”

The incident comes on the heels of a security lapse at Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station, which is owned by Exelon Corp., which also owns TMI.

An employee of security subcontractor Wackenhut filmed colleagues sleeping on the job. Wackenhut was fired from the site by Exelon in October, shortly after the video was made public.

Exelon is reviewing its contracts with Wackenhut at all of its plants, including TMI.


GARRY LENTON: 255-8264

Source: The Patriot-News