Nuclear Power Plants Turn Up the Security Heat

Dec. 15, 2017
Harsh environment spurs use of thermal video technology on site

Nuclear energy is a vital part of our nation’s critical infrastructure, making up nearly 20 percent of the total electricity generation for the United States. In fact, nuclear energy is forecasted to be the second fastest growing energy source in the world, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook 2017. As millions of people rely on nuclear facilities to produce power each year, these stations are prime targets for intrusion, cyber breaches, and even radiological sabotage. Video technologies like thermal imaging cameras have proven to be a game-changer when it comes to early detection and 24-hour monitoring for perimeter protection; this technology is seeing widespread adoption across this sector.

Understanding the Risk and NRC Regulations

There are 61 nuclear power plants (99 nuclear power reactors) across the U.S. These nuclear plants generate electricity through fission or the splitting of uranium atoms; this results in heat, which turns into steam that spins turbines to generate electricity. During this process, nuclear plants do not emit carbon dioxide, making nuclear energy one of the few clean-air energy sources. However, these plants do produce small levels of radioactive gases and liquids. Although the amount of radiation produced by nuclear power stations is minimal, it is still imperative that these facilities are secure and do not fall into the wrong hands.

For this reason, the nuclear energy sector has some of the highest-level security and safety programs in place­ that are directly enforced by the federal government.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC) enacted strict requirements and protocols designed to enhance a nuclear facility’s threat recognition, emergency preparedness, incident response and defense against radiological sabotage.

In summary, NRC’s 73.55 security policy states that nuclear facilities must execute a Commission-approved Physical Security Plan. Tactics must include physical barriers that provide deterrence and restricted access control; intrusion detection systems must also be deployed to identify attempted or actual penetration of the protected area’s perimeter and all vital areas such as the reactor control room spent fuel pool and central alarm station. Nuclear facilities must also “provide continuous surveillance, observation and monitoring” of the outer zone, or the owner-controlled area, of the premises. The security technology must be able to “detect and deter intruders and ensure the integrity of physical barriers or other components and functions of the onsite physical protection program.”

For security staff, designing a system that integrates around-the-clock monitoring for a nuclear plant can be daunting. However, with the right security technology in place, the task is not only feasible but also cost-effective. Over the years, through testing and successful field deployments, thermal cameras have become the solution of choice over low-light cameras to meet the NRC’s 24/7 surveillance standard.

Low-Light vs. Thermal Cameras

Low-light cameras are appealing because they produce color images at night. The challenge is the performance of these cameras is dependent on the light source. Because moonlight and starlight are not sufficient light sources at night, external lights often need to be installed to accompany low-light cameras. This results in greater infrastructure and labor expenses for the end user.

Unlike low-light cameras, thermal cameras are not dependent on light. Thermal cameras capture what our eyes cannot see and produce video images based on heat radiation emitted by objects and individuals. The distinguishing feature of thermal cameras is that they can see in complete darkness, smoke, light fog and rain, and foliage.

Thermal cameras also produce clearer video images when compared to low-light cameras. Thermal imagers detect even the smallest differences in heat signatures, which are reflected in the high-contrast images they produce. These sharper images lead to higher performing video analytics, quicker intrusion detection and lower false alarm rates. For low-light cameras, the amount of reflected light energy available significantly affects the video image. While too much light in the camera sensor can result in bright spots, too little light will result in images with poor contrast; if there’s no light, there will be no picture at all. All of these scenarios leave security staff with unusable images, which is why many have turned to thermal cameras.

In addition to producing high-contrast video images, thermal cameras have wider field of views and optimal zoom capabilities, which are ideal for intrusion detection. Thermal cameras can detect individuals at far greater distances than visible cameras, providing an early warning to security teams so that they can respond before suspicious individuals reach the fence line. In comparison, the monitoring range of low-light cameras is limited by the proximity of the light source, and therefore, is relatively short.  

Besides long-range monitoring capabilities, thermal cameras are also known for their robust, durable design. They have proven to be one of the hardest solutions for adversaries to breach during force-on-force tests.

Widespread Adoption

Thermal cameras are the best video solution to satisfy the NRC’s 24/7 video surveillance requisite, which is why the number of thermal camera deployments for nuclear facilities has substantially increased over the last decade. In addition to the rapid deployment of thermal cameras for nuclear security, there has also been an increase in advanced integrations of thermal and other security systems. Today, nuclear facilities are pairing thermal cameras with radar. With a thermal-radar integrated solution, security staff can more effectively detect targets in wide area perimeters. When the thermal camera slews to the cue of the radar, security teams can not only pinpoint the exact GPS location of the approaching target in a map display, but they also get a visual of the approaching target. The integration of thermal and radar technologies provides unparalleled situational awareness beyond the perimeter.

More nuclear plants are also installing dual sensor cameras that have both a thermal and visible light camera lens. With a dual sensor camera, staff cannot only monitor, but also identify individuals and objects in the purview of the camera. In other words, a central station monitor on duty at night will be able to see that the individual approaching the perimeter is a crew member who forgot his badge rather than an intruder.

Some nuclear facilities are even looking into the deployment of drones with thermal imagers on them to extend surveillance beyond the point of fixed cameras and enhance real-time response. If a security officer in the control room receives a detection alert from a radar system at night, he can activate a drone to fly to the area to get a better understanding of the situation before dispatching personnel to the area.

All in all, thermal cameras are essential for 24/7 threat recognition for nuclear plants and play a key role in the overall physical security plan.  

About the Author: John Distelzweig serves as the Vice President and General Manager of FLIR’s Security segment.