Nuclear Plant Terrorism

Securing Reactors from Sabotage and Terrorism

Security problems at US nuclear plants were first
uncovered in 1975, right here at Three Mile Island

This site describes the threat of sabotage and terrorism to nuclear power plants with a special focus on securing Three Mile Island.

In 2002, the NRC was requested by the Department of Homeland Security to provide a list of nuclear plants which are most vulnerable to terrorist attack The NRC did not respond in time, so the Department of Homeland Security made their own list of 30 plants. TMI is on the list.

Three Mile Island Alert has been concerned about security issues since 1977.


Three Mile Island and other plants will install guard towers and make other improvements to counter the truck bomb and commando threat. Three Mile Island Alert recommended installing guard towers in 1993 in our testimony to the NRC and the US Senate. see story

Considering the fact that a nuclear plant houses more than a thousand times the radiation as released in an atomic bomb blast, the magnitude of a single attack could reach beyond 100,000 deaths and the immediate loss of tens of billions of dollars. The land and properties destroyed (your insurance won't cover nuclear disasters) would remain useless for decades and would become a stark monument reminding the world of the terrorists' ideology. With more than 100 reactors in the United States alone, if one is successfully destroyed, just threatening additional attacks could instill the sort of high impact terror which is being sought by a new breed of terrorists.


Security Incidents at TMI
Terrorists at Three Mile Island
F-16s Scramble to Protect TMI
The Truck Bomb Problem
Boat Security
The Aircraft Threat
The Commando Threat
The Insider Threat
No Guards Are Required at Entrances
TMI Alert's Security Recommendations
"Dateline" Nuclear Plant Security
That's Outrageous!


Security is Still in the Stone Age
It's Not Rocket Science
It's Easy to Turn a Nuclear Plant Into a Nuclear Weapon
A Bomb in Our Parking Lot is Not Our Problem
Terrorism Could Happen at Three Mile Island
Security was not breached
Bad Training
TMI Entrance Was Wide Open Three Nights Before the 9-11 Attacks
TMI - No Guards - Truck Voluntarily Stops

Security Incidents at TMI

In the spring of 1975, two conscientious security guards revealed to the nation just how poor security was at TMI in an effort to remedy the problems. John Darcy and Joe Shapiro initially raised the issue with their bosses who not only ignored their concerns, but pressured the pair to resign by telling them that they could not be assured of their safety when returning to work. The veiled threat forced the two to seek help elsewhere.

Darcy and Shapiro held a press conference in Washington D.C. with Ralph Nader. Nader called nuclear plant security a "sham" and a threat to national security. Nader called for a congressional investigation. Two years later, the Government Accounting Office agreed with the guards and said security was "inadequate at best." One chapter of the report was titled "Why has the NRC's Security Program Failed."


One quarter of all vehicle intrusions at U.S. nuclear plants have occurred at TMI. A previous intrusion at TMI in 1976 was somewhat comical. As if to laugh in the face of security, an intruder drove onto the site, climbed an unalarmed fence and seemingly disappeared. About 35 minutes later he was heard singing from atop the reactor building! Searches were conducted but the individual was not found.


Following the 1979 partial meltdown at TMI, investigators became suspicious of sabotage. Paul Leventhal, co-director of the US Senate investigation of the Three Mile Island accident, wanted to perform a special sabotage investigation. "The initiating event was always so mysterious in that so little was known about it," Leventhal said in an interview. "I wanted to hire someone like a former FBI agent to do an investigation but the Minority co-director objected."

The President's Commission investigators also became suspicious and asked to examine the licensees personnel files for "any person who might have long-standing grievances against the company." This was requested specifically as an attempt to discover workers who might have had incentive to close the emergency feedwater valves. Interrogation of the five workers who were identified by the company was considered but never performed.

Soon after the 1979 emergency, the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory concluded:

"There was very little protection against insider sabotage. ...There was very little or no control of the whereabouts of people inside the vital area; so it cannot be said that sabotage to the auxiliary feedwater system was impossible."

"...some vital area doors that should have been locked or guarded were found to be open and unguarded. Actually, there was very poor protection against the sabotage actions of the insider."

"The conclusion can be drawn that the protection against the activities of an insider is still inadequate at TMI..."


And an embarrassing incident did happen several months after the partial meltdown when a newspaper reporter was hired as a security guard. He told of entering the control room unchallenged (only armed guards were permitted access). There was no lock on the door and a piece of clothesline hung where the doorknob should have been. A college textbook used this incident as an example of poor security. The book cited the reporter's headline -- "Three Mile Island: It's a Paradise Island for the Saboteur." General Public Utilities sought an injunction to block publication of the article on the grounds that it could compromise national security.

Another emergency at the Three Mile Island (TMI) Nuclear Generating Station on February 7, 1993 demonstrated security weaknesses at US nuclear plants. Operators declared the highest level of emergency since the accident when an intruder was loose in the plant. Reactor Unit 1 was operating at full power. Shutting it down would require workers to manipulate equipment from outside the locked control room and thereby place them in jeopardy of becoming hostages. A hostage situation could raise the threat level to unthinkable scenarios where operators would have to make decisions on their buddies' lives.

If the car or the intruder is armed with explosives, a catastrophic radiological release may be hours or even minutes away. Many people living near TMI re-experienced old familiar fears and even traumas that they had been trying to forget. A family about to return from a vacation called their neighbors to see if it was safe to come home. Something as frightening as a nuclear disaster can vex the soul for a long time.

image Scott Portzline of Three Mile Island Alert explains (Real Audio 49kb) the seriousness of the situation on "America's Defense Monitor" (PBS)
The Center for Defense Information

The apprehension started when a 31 year old man suffering from depression drove his mother's 1984 Plymouth station wagon into the guarded entrance at Three Mile Island, crashed through the protected area fence and then through a roll-up door. The car stopped 63 feet inside the turbine building.

[IMAGE]He exited the car, descended a ladder and hid in the darkened belly of the condenser pit. It was so dark that guards put off performing a thorough search until brighter flashlights were made available. In the meantime, the plant continued operating at full power while the control room staff carefully watched the gauges and alarms for any changes that would indicate sabotage.

Guards assumed defensive positions to protect some of the more vulnerable equipment and hid in spots where they could see strategic portions of the enormous turbine building. All access doors were locked by computer control; yet, the NRC knew this would only slow down an intruder armed with a satchel charge by fifteen seconds. Locking the control room doors had the unfortunate effect of delaying calls for offsite responders. In fact, the control room shift foreman informed some responders to standby at home because of the inability to move about the plant.

Four hours later the intruder was found curled up in a fetal position and seemed unaware of his surroundings. He was arrested, charged with four felonies including "risking a catastrophe" and then hospitalized for psychiatric observation. The intruder was not hostile and the only damage to plant systems resulted from the car's striking equipment in a place and manner which did not directly threaten public safety.

The NRC's Incident Investigation Team (IIT) found more than 40 problems with the response of the security staff and concluded:
"....the strategies used during the intrusion would not have precluded an individual with attributes associated with the Design Basis Threat from reaching and attempting to enter the vital area before being interdicted by armed responders."

[IMAGE] Guards protect the turbine building after a station wagon crashes through a roll-up door at Three Mile Island.
Harrisburg Patriot-News 2/8/93

But this simple act which took less than two minutes, by a mentally ill man who was only looking for notoriety, exposed numerous security problems at a world famous plant that just happened to have the nuclear industry's highest security rating.

The team reported that the response weapons were stored in isolated locations and that there was a reluctance to use certain weapons. Not all of the vital doors were guarded and some guards left their posts. Poor lighting in the turbine building hampered a thorough search. Some of the responses and security preparedness were reviewed by the NRC for non-compliance. Not all of the armed guards were where the NRC had instructed them to be. Communication devices were used too close to the vehicle and could have detonated a bomb. Previous drills had revealed weaknesses which reoccurred when it came time for the real thing.


Unbelievably, the IIT concluded that GPUN had responded appropriately. How could they make this claim? They simply add the phrase, "to the specific challenges presented by the intruder."

At the April 6, 1993 briefing of the NRC commissioners by the IIT, Commission Chairman Ivan Selin volunteered that security had not faced a difficult test. Selin said, "The fact was this guy, wasn't hostile, he wasn't armed and he didn't do anything. So, almost anything that they would have done would have been appropriate in that sense, and there would not have been radiological damage, et cetera." But, Selin wanted to know if thoughtful decisions had been made or if GPUN just did things that "turned out okay." Team leader Sam Collins replied, "My opinion of that would be, we didn't directly address that in the report."

Another NRC analysis of the incident concluded:

"Out of the confusion and concern for personal safety, operations staff made decisions that could have negatively affected the public health and safety. Even when an initial assessment was made, licensee staff did not know how many unauthorized individuals were inside the protected area, where they were, and whether they possessed weapons or explosives."

Fishermen Arrested at TMI

On the evening of July 17 2002, an unoccupied boat docked at the southern end of the island was spotted by an alert fisherman. He called authorities who initiated a search. There were no company security patrols on duty there since it is outside of the "Owner Controlled Area." It is however private property. The area could be used to cache weapons or stage a commando attack.

Two fisherman were found and charged with trespassing. They had no malevolent intent. The Pennsylvania State Police are to be commended for the thorough search of the southern end of the island. A State Police helicopter was used to illuminate the ground during the search.

This page updated by Three Mile Island Alert July 2004