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« Are nuclear reactors safe from attack? | Main
Wednesday
Jul082009

Virtual reconnaissance and the security threats from nuclear power plants

Imagine some would-be enemy of the state sitting in a Wi-Fi café - now found practically anywhere on the globe - connecting his or her laptop computer to the internet for the virtual reconnaissance of a nuclear power plant in the United States. Today, such an enemy, perhaps sitting thousands of miles away, can determine where all the reactor's guard towers are. Maybe they also want to locate the high ground nearest to the reactor or where the plant shift changes occur. It is no problem to determine the location of nearby highways and staging areas that could be involved in an evolving attack plan. They can virtually view a variety of pathways, survey on-site stairwells and ladders, map out an attack plan on reactor systems and lay it out in a table top exercise for a would-be adversary team to practice on.These aren't stolen and smuggled photographs. They are all available off the Web, free for the taking.

Such information and more is available today on high-resolution mapping Web sites like Maps Live and Virtual Bird's Eye that publicly provide free updated state-of-the-art satellite photography, according to Scott Portzline, a security analyst with Three Mile Island Alert in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He has been grimacing over the threat that comes from the wide public availability of potentially national security-related details. Take for example the level of on-site security detail revealed in a "bird's eye view" of the on-site nuclear waste storage casks stored near Route 9 at the oldest nuclear power plant in the U.S., Oyster Creek nuclear power station in Lacey Township, New Jersey, less than 60 miles from New York City. Portzline writes in his May 13, 2009 letter to the United States Department of Homeland Security: "There now exists a very serious compromise of security at our nation's nuclear power plants. Due to the very high quality of satellite images, terrorists and saboteurs can see far too much detail, which gives specific advantages to an attacking force. Some of the defensive positions of nuclear plant guards are now revealed due to the elevated level of clarity and resolution. Furthermore, these images reveal pathways, stairways and potential staging areas giving terrorists the ability to plan the quickest or best route to the specific targeted buildings".

Nuclear power has always been an inherently dangerous technology. That danger has significantly increased with malicious events like the truck bombing of the Murrah Federal Building by domestic terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, and the devastating al Qaeda hijacked aircraft attacks of September 11, 2001. If someone, by design or by insanity, wants to do maximum damage to public health, the environment and to economically dislocate potentially large geographic areas for a long time, nuclear power plants become the targets of choice.

By necessity and by its very nature, nuclear power is becoming a more secretive operation, incompatible with an open democratic society. The public is already denied its due process to openly challenge nuclear power plant operating licensing proceedings that involve issues over inadequate site security and vulnerable on-site nuclear waste storage. The continued operation, timeless presence and potential expansion of nuclear power poses an increasing threat not only to public health and safety and to national security but to the civil liberties of an open society.

The level of detail now widely available in an exponentially growing information age spotlights the concerns that Mr. Portzline has raised to federal officials. Federal action to blur the detail of virtual images of existing nuclear power plant sites is needed. However, such action in and of itself does not address the growing threat that this particular energy technology will continue to pose now and into the distant future. It does make potentially malicious reconnaissance much less easy to perform by remote and anonymous adversaries. Such suppressive action does, however, highlight and amplify a concern for our civil liberties and forces the question what other information forums must be obscured or denied the public and what other freedoms must be lost to protect us from the threat posed by nuclear power?

Let's be clear - it is not that we need to fear or curtail the operation of legitimate internet businesses or ban high resolution satellite photography from Web sites. These are amazingly informative and educational sites in the new realm of virtual reality. Just take a look at another "bird's eye view" Virtual Bird's Eye for an impressive virtual tour of the Horse Hollow Win Turbines in Taylor County, Texas, one of the world's largest wind turbine farms here in the United States. Taking the tour does not, of course, expose any guard towers or security threats.

That's because there aren't any.

- Paul Gunter

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