Has Greenpeace gone too far by crashing a drone into the French Bugey nuclear plant at dawn on July 3, 2018? A drone made to look like a flying Superman was steered into the spent fuel pool building by one of the activists in an attempt to draw attention to the vulnerabilities of terrorist attacks. The owners of the plant say that the French police also intercepted a second drone. Greenpeace released a video with images taken from the ground and from the drone as it crashed into the building.
After other breaches of security last year where Greenpeace activists broke into French nuclear plants, and on one occasion set off fireworks, the French government did initiate investigations into nuclear plant security. It could therefore be argued that these theatrical stunts have value. But when do these actions reveal too much and draw too much attention?
Three years ago, an unknown group flew numerous drones over all 19 of France's nuclear power plants in a coordinated effort. Greenpeace claims to have had no involvement and investigators can find no link. On one evening, five drone incursions in the space of six hours placed the government on high alert. The drones were very sophisticated and unable to be tracked by military helicopters. They were big enough to carry explosives yet small enough to avoid detection with conventional radar. Intermittently, the drones would shine a bright light onto the nuclear plant as if taking photographs. There is still no word as to who was behind those drone incursions.
One would think that those activities three years ago would have been enough to cause the government to study the problem. Maybe they did secretly, but there have been no changes at the nuclear plants. Was Greenpeace highly irresponsible for the timing of this latest theatrical stunt when the French government report initiated last year is due out shortly? I think so.
Twenty-five years ago, I rented an airplane and flew over the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to demonstrate to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) how easy it was to do just that and to identify every building.
What prompted me to create this video presentation was an invite from the NRC for public input on security vulnerabilities. Previously at an NRC meeting, an NRC Commissioner stated you just can't go down to an airport and rent an airplane. Everyone in the room laughed. Then while talking with another Commissioner after the meeting, she stated that the air traffic controllers at the airport would be able to see what was going on. She turned and walked away.
At the public input meeting, I gave a presentation to over 100 security experts from various nuclear plants and the NRC. It was pointed out to me later how quiet the room became as I laid out a series of vulnerabilities and methods the average person could use to gather information for planning viable attacks against a nuclear power plant. In fact, a few months later, one NRC security expert telephoned me to thank me for changing a long-standing belief at the commission. He said that the NRC believed the public did not know enough detail of reactor sites to be able to formulate a viable attack plan.
The video of my plane flying over Three Mile Island was shown on NBC's Dateline a month after the 9/11 attacks. No changes have ever been made to guard against attack from the air. In recent years there have been changes in how to respond to air attacks, such as evacuating plant operators away from the reactor site so they can return after the attack to deal with the damage. Despite common beliefs, there aren't any "no-fly zones." That wouldn't stop a terrorist anyhow.
So, with nothing to show for my efforts regarding air attacks, I made the decision that I would never perform a theatrical stunt or test security at a nuclear plant. I have testified to the NRC, to the US Senate, and to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
Sometimes as activists, we must make a splash in the news to get the government to act. Many times, this is done in a manner which embarrasses a governmental body.
However, when it comes to security, it is wise to limit the details of the issues which you are making public. Reveal the vulnerability secrets behind closed doors to the governmental regulators and committees. That's something I and my compatriots requested of the NRC throughout the 80's and 90's. The NRC was so confident of its security that we were told a closed-door meeting was not necessary.
Times have changed! Since 9/11 the NRC cautions us to be careful with our public discussions with the nuclear regulators and utilities. We just smile an "I told you so" smile. On one occasion a small panel of NRC security experts asked to meet with me in a secured, electronically sealed room at their Region 1 headquarters in King of Prussia Pennsylvania. Instead of being thanked for my input, I was threatened with 20 years in prison under the Patriot Act if I were to speak "too much" about a certain vulnerability.
It should not take "theater" to prompt better security at our nation's nuclear plants. In 2001, I filed legal papers docketed by the NRC forcing them to decide about a new requirement for security guards to be placed at the entrances of nuclear plants. After breaking their own rules on 45 occasions, they made my "petition for rulemaking" disappear. That's something that can't happen! They committed to issuing a ruling! But they didn't.
So, I understand why Greenpeace activists are tempted to go too far. Still, I think it's a bad idea and advise others to do your best through other means.