My Nuclear Experience AT Gunpoint
by Douglas Black, March 29, 2016
(This blog was originally posted on my ENERFICIENCY Blog in June of 2002 shortly after the so-called “dirty bomber plot” was foiled by the FBI and NSA, and in the wake of the Patriot Act passage. In light of the recent terrorist attacks in Europe and allegations that some of the plotters were seeking the means of a dirty bomb, this seems relevant.)
Shimmering and immense, the flat horizon of Lake Michigan shows itself rhythmically between adolescent jack-pines that line the Red Arrow Highway. A large billboard reads “Now Open For Events – Sign Up Today!”. With the exception of the high-power lines leading away like columns of giant robots chanting “I am iron man”, this was the first indication that I was close to a nuclear plant.
The access road was just ahead, up near the strangely out-of-place rail crossing that heads toward the sandy shore of no less than the matriarch of our nation’s greatest family of freshwater treasures. Lake Michigan is the second biggest of the Great Lakes which create the unmistakable shape of Michigan, the nation’s leader in industry, watersports and outdoor recreation.
While northern Michigan is forested and wild and sparsely populated, southern Michigan is home to nearly 70 percent of the state’s population. This particular part of the shoreline is also within 100 miles of Chicagoland, a metropolitan population of over 1.5 million citizens. Only sixty-some miles south are the University of Notre Dame. Purdue is also nearby, as is Indiana University and many other schools.
So it is not surprising that our National Security efforts are looking closely at nuclear power facilities, like the Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant. I was visiting a new-urbanism development on the shore of Lake Michigan, so I thought I should take a look at how our leaders are doing.
First a little background. In a recent conversation with The New York Times, the Bush administration’s homeland security chief Tom Ridge plainly and bluntly said his biggest worry is nuclear. An actual nuclear bomb that devastates a major city as portrayed in recent Hollywood blockbusters is not a likely scenario for terrorists attacks, according to Rose Gottemoeller, who handled Russian nuclear safety in the Clinton administration and now follows the subject for the Carnegie Endowment.
Gottemoeller says that the most likely attack would be a radiological one, or a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb is one that may not create a nuclear blast, but will indeed spew a radioactive cloud of dust, debris and water vapor for great distances, causing immediate illness and death for decades. A mail-order Chernobyl of sorts.
The guts of a dirty bomb could be cobolt-60, which is easily available in hospitals for use in radiation therapy and in food processing to kill the bacteria in vegetables and fruit. Or it could be americum, an isotope that behaves in much the same way as plutonium and is used in oil prospecting and smoke detectors. Or it could be cesium-137, commonly used in medical gauges and radiotherapy machines. The spent fuel from a nuclear reactor or isotopes separated out in the refining process could be the heart of a dirty bomb.
These materials are many times more abundant and much, much less protected than the high-grade stuff suitable for weapons, according to a recent New York Times story. The May 26, 2002 story Nuclear Nightmaresby Bill Keller exposes the perils of power plants, saying Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat has recently identified a number of shortcomings in defensive safeguards at these energy facilities, including lax standards for clearing workers hired at power plants.
Sa-a-a-y, dis don’t look like Pismo Beach ta me. There was a line of vehicles waiting in single file at the entrance to the Donald C. Cook Nuclear Plant. All lanes but one were blocked off with cones like they do at the county fair to corral you into the muddiest parking area. A banner over one lane read “Cook Energy Center Tours”, but that was not my lane. The car in front of mine had out-of-state plates. Then I realized most others did as well. And mine was the only car, a small station wagon with several archival boxes of files and stuff in back. All of the other vehicles in line were large SUVs with tinted windows. Perhaps that is what raised suspicion at the front of the line.
When my turn to talk to the man was nearing, I realized that he was outfitted with a bit more hardware than the customs people I usually talk to at the Detroit-Windsor boarder. He was dressed in green camouflage fatigues, smartly shined boots, a green cap with an unfamiliar insignia, and an automatic weapon slung easily around his back. He looked as comfortable with that weapon as many 12 year old boys do with a Louisville Slugger resting over their shoulder. As I pulled up the weapon methodically moved around to his front side.
“State your business, sir” he commanded, eyeing the unmarked boxes in the back of my fuel-efficient vehicle.
“I’m here for the tour” said I, trying to remain calm. He was looking at my dashboard sticker SOLAR – The Natural Energy Choice and squinting his eyes like my seventh grade science teacher did when anyone tried to explain why they did not finish the assignment.
“All tours have been suspended. I must ask you to turn your vehicle around” was his reply.
“Is there someone I can speak with about your increased security measures?”
“Once again, I am asking you to turn the vehicle around the other direction. You can call the number in the phone book for questions”. The soldier, a confident man of about 25, was animated in his motions toward the highway. I thought it best to comply.
Down the road a few hundred yards was a dirt road leading to the shoreline. I have always enjoyed taking pictures of shoreline and seascapes, being from Michigan and all. In hindsight I imagine there were cameras, activated by motion detecting equipment, hidden neatly in hollowed out scrub oak and white pine all along that road.
At the end was a fence and a sign that said No Parking. I learned by going to concerts and Red Wings games in Detroit that “No Parking” usually means “You Can Park Here Because No One Else Will”. Usually. I got out of the car and looked out over this beautiful lake stretching to the horizon for from ear to ear. To the right, practically a stones throw away, was the power plant. Turning sideways, I eased myself between the rusty old wire fence and a newer chain-linked fence, and onto the dunes.
There were a few old railroad ties scattered like steps or a loose retaining wall and I hopped out to get a better look at the breakers below. Twelve feet down was a smooth sandy beach that looked like a perfect spot for sunbathing, yet undiscovered. The waves were only 2 to 3 feet high and rolled up on the beach very calmly, only 20 feet from my feet, unaware of the tension on shore. After snapping a couple a lovely shots of breakers, and a few of the brightly-colored security rafts beached to my right, I walked back up the dune.
Squeezing through the fence, I was met by a very anxious security officer. My initial reaction was one of laughter, which I usually do when I’m in trouble. (My mom would only get more angry as I grinned at her.) The security officer looked as though she had never had occasion to draw her weapon, but felt justified now. Holding the pistol with it’s business end skyward, she never kept her eyes off mine as she spoke into her collar. Over her shoulder I could see three other vehicles moving in our direction.
By this time I was standing on next to my car explaining that I was taking seascape pictures and producing identification. While the tenseness increased, my explanations decrease. Then my cell phone rang.
My wife was on the phone, letting me know when her meeting would be over and asking if I was having a relaxing day on my own. “Yes honey, I will, Yes. Y-yes. Yes dear. I love you, too. No, I won’t. Yes dear.”
Well that did it. No terrorist would be getting a call from the Mrs., certainly not in the middle of a mission. They let me go.
I’ll say one thing. I am very comfortable with the security as far as personnel infiltration goes. They only took thirty seconds to be on top of me. But I do question the reliance on large-scale nuclear plants that can cause considerable disruption when out of commission. Out of commission by sabotage, by attack by sea, by attack by plane, by taking out a few towers that lead away from the plant itself, or by using the spent fuel to create dirty bombs.
Our national security is far too important than to just assume we can prevent some group from stopping life as we know it at a wholesale level. By shifting our energy dependence to smaller, distributed power generation sites like wind, solar, fuel cells and other technologies we turn the target into something far more complicated to hit. One bullseye becomes dozens of bullseyes to achieve the same impact. The energy grid as we see it now would become hundreds or thousands of small micro-grids, producing energy near the point of use.
To this end, the State of Michigan is again stepping up to the plate as a technology leader as many of the leading manufacturers of DG technology are located in Michigan. Governor John Engler recently announced plans to make Michigan a world center for fuel cell research, manufacturing and education. Engler unveiled the plan, called NextEnergy, which would include a 700-acre tax-free zone near Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. The plan also calls for an energy education center affiliated with the University of Michigan, an annual G-8 summit of energy ministers (the first of which was held last month in Detroit), and a series of demonstration micro-grids that would demonstrate the viability of these technologies.
Douglas Black is continues writing, shooting photos, and getting into trouble from Chicago.