Security, Emergency Ops at North Carolina Nuclear Plant OKed after Test

All systems at the Brunswick Nuclear Plant performed well during a mock radiation leak this week, federal and plant officials said Thursday.

The plant was secured, orders to evacuate schools and homes came as they should and plans were made to set up emergency shelters where they were needed.

And while Wednesday's test was built around a series of mishaps at the plant, the response was similar to what would happen if terrorists were to attack the nuclear plant 65 miles north of Myrtle Beach.

Safety from terrorist attacks was one of the issues that helped decide this year's presidential election.

Progress Energy, which owns and operates the plant, has spent about $5 million since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to comply with federal orders for increased security, said Allen Brittain, security superintendent of the Brunswick plant. Much of it has been geared toward moving the plant's heavily protected area further from the two reactor cores than it was prior to the 2001 attacks.

Some residents of Brunswick County think the plant could be a terrorist target. Others say they have no worry about an attack at the plant.

"I feel very comfortable and secure with the plant as our neighbor," said Rob Grandy, Southport town manager, whose office is 1' miles from the plant's two nuclear reactors.

Grandy is in a better position than many residents to know about the security systems at the plant and what has been done to make them better.

The plant involves local police and emergency personnel in its plans and will include some in force-on-force exercises to test defenses against attacks.

Brittain and others involved will not discuss specifically what has been done. But Nuclear Regulatory Commission orders since 2001 have led to increased patrols, more security forces and capabilities, additional security posts, installation of more physical barriers, enhanced coordination with law enforcement and military authorities, more restrictive site access and expanded and more thorough employee background checks, according to the commission's Web site.

Besides increasing its area of heavy security, the Brunswick plant has closed a back entrance to the plant and built guard towers surrounding the building that houses its two reactors, among other things.

The two reactor towers were designed to withstand airplane crashes, and officials are confident even a direct hit by a large airplane would not penetrate the reactor core walls. Two 4-foot-thick walls crisscrossed with heavy steel bars surround the reactor, as does a steel plate that is more than a foot thick.

Should the walls be blown open from an explosion, the resultant release of radiation likely would be small, if at all, according to plant officials and the NRC.

The plant's nuclear fuel is kept underwater, and that alone will stop most radiation from getting to the atmosphere.

The nuclear fuel used at the plant is not weapons-grade and will not explode in a mushroom cloud, plant officials said.

Even a significant radiation release would be less harmful than many people imagine, said Randy Thompson, director of Brunswick County's emergency services.

His office has one mobile decontamination unit and is equipping a second that could go into neighborhoods to clean people in a fallout area. Disrobing and showering will wash off the contaminated fallout, minimizing any risk from exposure, he said.

The main area of concern is within a 10-mile radius of the plant. Under certain atmospheric conditions, that area could extend to 50 miles.

Residents within 10 miles of the plant also can get potassium iodide tablets from the state that will protect their thyroid glands from absorbing any radiation.

Brittain is confident U.S. intelligence would detect any gathering force before a large-scale attack.

Help is available either from the Marines at Camp Lejeune or the Army at Fort Bragg, both within 90 miles of the plant.

The real worry is about terrorists who might try to get past the heavily armed security patrols, razor wire fences, microwave-detection systems and guard towers, Brittain said.

That is the reason for the force-on-force exercises. It also is why Brittain and others at the plant will try to slip a single individual past security from time to time to test the systems.

There has not been a threat against any of the nation's 104 nuclear power plants since Sept 11, 2001.

Two area residents have called local authorities, though, to report what they thought was suspicious activity. Both cases, one involving an ultralight plane and the other a case of mistaken identity by a landlord, turned out to be false alarms.

In one, a resident of Carolina Beach notified the Brunswick Sheriff's Office that an ultralight aircraft was about to fly over the plant.

Brittain said the ultralight was flown by a doctor in Carolina Beach, across the Cape Fear River from the plant, and didn't go over plant property.

But the calls illustrate a level of public concern, the kind of concern that has caused Boiling Springs Lakes resident Alan Pascucci and his wife to get potassium iodide pills.

"It's a new reality," said Pascucci, owner of Timeless Treasures on Moore Street in Southport. "It's something we all have to get used to."