Quebec Hydro Power Dams under Gun after Security Breaches by Journalists

QUEBEC (CP) - Images of a television news crew strolling freely through unguarded Hydro-Quebec dams are raising doubts about security at some of Canada's largest electrical generating stations.

The Quebec government ordered a review Wednesday of security procedures at sensitive Hydro sites after startling images of a journalist deep inside several massive generating stations were broadcast on Radio-Canada television.

Clients in Ontario, Vermont, New York and utilities elsewhere in New England have called to express concern about Hydro-Quebec security, utility officials admitted Wednesday.

"I was surprised at the ease of access," said Scott Corse, project manager with Vermont Joint Owners, a partnership of 14 state electrical utilities that buy power from Quebec.

"Given the importance of Hydro-Quebec power to the state of Vermont, it is my intention to ask my operating committee to touch base with H-Q and see if we can get the rest of the story."

Thierry Vandal, president of Hydro-Quebec's production arm, said the Quebec utility has been in contact with its Vermont customers several times in the last 48 hours to reassure them.

"Obviously they are concerned by the situation," Vandal told a news conference in Montreal. "These are valuable, important customers and their concern is quite understandable."

Hydro-Quebec president Andre Caille admitted the television report showed important security lapses that Hydro has already started to repair, including a broken gate and video surveillance systems that are incomplete.

The report broadcast Tuesday showed the news crew driving through underground tunnels into the heart of two major installations. The team could be seen opening a series of unlocked doors - some large enough to allow their truck inside - until the reporter and camera operator found a series of sensitive control panels that send electricity to thousands of homes in Quebec and the United States.

"We could easily plunge hundreds of thousands of Quebecers into darkness," reporter Christian Latreille says in his report as he passes by a series of giant switches inside one dam.

The report showed Latreille going into several installations in different parts of Quebec, from the Robert-Bourassa LG-2 dam near James Bay to Manic-5 on the Lower North Shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The report did not show a single security guard or Hydro employee in any of the installations, even though Caille insisted the dams have 24-hour guards and video surveillance.

A crew from the TVA television network made its own trip to LG-2 Wednesday, reportedly strolling around the installation despite Hydro-Quebec's promise of beefing up security.

Premier Jean Charest said he is confident Hydro will fix its security problems.

"I was surprised enough to see someone circulate so freely in Hydro-Quebec installations," Charest said in Montebello, Que.

"It certainly leads us to ask certain questions. We are waiting to see that Hydro-Quebec answers those questions."

The premier said he has confidence in Caille. But Montreal La Presse reported Thursday that the renewal of Caille's term next September for another three years is being called into question.

Hydro-Quebec promised to beef up security after a report in 1992 showed major lapses and again following the terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001.

"The measures are on the way to being in place," Vandal said. "It's taken a time, I admit, that seems long. I regret this delay. I can't say the situation is acceptable."

However, security analyst Michel Juneau-Katsuya said the threat of attack on hydro installations is exaggerated. He said it would be almost impossible for a terrorist to destroy a major hydro dam.

"There is so much concrete in those stations, you would need a mini-nuclear bomb to cause significant damage," Juneau-Katsuya said.

Juneau-Katsuya said even a major attack on hydro transformers or power stations would only disrupt electrical service for a few hours.

Terrorists are more interested in high-profile symbolic targets with the potential for many civilian casualties, he said.

"I'm more concerned with the CN Tower in downtown Toronto, rather than a dam in the middle of nowhere," he said.

The news report came a few months after someone bombed a Hydro-Quebec line that sends power to the United States.

The strike on a transmission tower caused light damage and didn't interrupt service but forced the utility to replace the leaning tower in the Eastern Townships.

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