The security challenge of 'peaceful' protest

23 September 2014

The nuclear industry faces the real challenge of trying to determine an "appropriate response" to intrusion at one of their facilities by a member of the public, said Anne Harrington, deputy administrator for defence nuclear non-proliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Harrington spoke at a security culture side event held today at the International Atomic Energy Agency's General Conference in Vienna.

Established by Congress in 2000, NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the US Department of Energy (DoE) responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science.

"If I wanted to penetrate the defences of the nuclear facility some place I would not join a terrorist cell; I might rather join Greenpeace"

Anne Harrington
Deputy Administrator
National Nuclear Security Administration

American nuclear power plants are secured by their owners under strict regulation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but the DoE has direct responsibility for security at its own sites. One of those sites is the military Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge, in Tennessee. In July 2012, three senior citizens, including an 83-year old nun, breached the security systems of the complex and spray-painted anti-war slogans on the exterior of the highly enriched uranium materials facility.

"In the assessment that followed this incident, the conclusion was that if we had people dropping out of helicopters with weapons and actually attacking us we could have responded with no problem," Harrington said. "But we and many other countries face the real challenge of trying to determine what the appropriate response is to civil intrusion. I know from talking to my European colleagues that Greenpeace can be a challenge to manage and I have said that if I wanted to penetrate the defences of the nuclear facility some place I would not join a terrorist cell; I might rather join Greenpeace."

The security concern created by a peaceful protester - "with a legitimate reason to voice an opposition to a policy or to a facility that they can't support in good conscience" - is judging whether their backpack contains sandwiches and water or explosives.

Greenpeace action at Bugey (Greenpeace) 460x321
Greenpeace used a paraglider to throw smoke bombs at France's Bugey nuclear power plant in May 2012. The activist was arrested moments after crash-landing at the site
(Image: Greenpeace)

"In our response to the Y-12 intrusion, one of the key decisions was to select a person to lead the review, who was trusted, professional and who was going to be given the full authority to probe as far as she needed to go to find out what the root cause of the failure was. And then to have the leadership that would receive the report willing to hear what the causes were and then to take action," Harrington said. "So, it was not a matter of finding out what the truth is and then hiding some of it – that's the worst thing that could happen. It was a very painful process and we are still correcting the issues that we had because for us the security culture failed and for many different reasons."

DoE published two of the reports carried out in response to the Y-12 breach and found that some of the causes of it were unexpected. "We used contractors to provide security, but there were several levels of contracts. So one contractor had the responsibility for identifying problems, but not for confirming that they were fixed," Harrington said. "Sometimes it's something as straightforward as that."

The DoE will continue to share with its international partners the lessons learned from its failings. "We believe that, as embarrassing as it is to have to admit failures like this, it can only serve to strengthen our international understanding of why security culture is important, how it fails, where it fails and what the consequences are. It is much more than just taking the course and passing a test. It is something that you live and breathe every day."

The nuclear industry should seek to learn from the "long tradition" of industrial security in many different sectors. "I would like to see that engagement because many industries already have excellent practices," Harrington said.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News