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Attacks on US energy infrastructure across the US are increasing. Meanwhile, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is mulling shifting more security obligations from plant owners to local law enforcement.
A conversation with Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Last week, an avowed neo-Nazi and a clearly sympathetic accomplice were arrested for plotting to sow terror on the people of Baltimore by shooting up a ring of subpower stations supplying the city’s power. The intent was to “destroy” Baltimore, a majority Black city. That arrest reflects a sustained mobilization of homegrown neo-Nazi networks, whose members are seeking to disrupt the nation’s power supply in hopes of ushering in economic collapse and race war.
Incidents catalogued by USA Today late last year included six “intrusion events” at Florida substations in September 2022; six attacks on substations in the US Northwest in November and December of 2022; four substations vandalized in Washington State cutting power to 14,000 on Christmas Day, 2022; a North Carolina “targeted attack” that left thousands without power.
Additionally, among three men pleading guilty in 2022 for plotting to destroy power stations in the U.S. was one former resident of Katy, Texas, who, according to U.S. Department of Justice, had also been working to recruit juveniles in Texas to the cause. A Deceleration review of U.S. Department of Energy data shows that suspicious incidents and damages at energy infrastructure sites in Texas also rose sharply during 2021 and 2022—from 4 in 2012 and a long line of 2’s in the later teens, to 8 in 2019, 8 in 2020, 18 in 2021, and 22 in 2022. (Across the US, incidents rose from 99 in 2021 to 172 in 2022.)
The data collected by the agency on non-weather-related electrical disturbances cover a variety of event types, including cyber events, vandalism, suspicious activity, and physical attacks. While the DOE press office did not respond to Deceleration by press deadline, we called about 10 law enforcement agencies this past week to corroborate cases included by the DOE.
In Kaufman County, a Sheriff’s employee told Deceleration they had recorded “shots fired near the Sonic” on December 17, 2022. The time and nature of the crime aligns with one DOE-logged incident, but the employee wasn’t aware of any energy infrastructure in that immediate area. An employee of the Mitchel County Sheriff’s Office, meanwhile, confirmed a suspect had cracked open a junction box at the Loraine Wind Farm and made off with “less than two feet of copper wire.” This also corresponded with the location and timing of an event listed among those DOE incidents.
Yet the absence of evidence here is far from evidence of absence. Take that former Katy resident, Jonathan Allen Frost (aged 24 at the time of arrest). Frost and his two colleagues trained with firearms together. They wore “suicide necklaces” full of fentanyl to take if captured by law enforcement (which one of them did allegedly swallow, though survived). Frost was also known to be recruiting in Texas and later pleaded guilty to “providing material support to terrorists” for the purpose of “destruction of an Energy Facility.”
“The defendants in this case wanted to attack regional power substations and expected the damage would lead to economic distress and civil unrest,” said Assistant Director Timothy Langan of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division.
(You can read more details in Frost’s subsequent plea deal here.)
It’s unclear how many potential targets were being surveilled by the team, but it is worth noting some were eyeing perhaps the highest-value target: nuclear power plants. The neo-Nazi alleged to have been targeting the City of Baltimore had also expressed an interest in taking out a Florida nuclear plant, for instance.
Given the South Texas Project nuclear complex in Texas’s Matagorda County in considered (due to its exposed sea-side location) potentially one of the more vulnerable reactors in the United States, how concerned should we be about the acceleration of domestic Nazi terror of this sort?
(Here’s the University of Texas’s Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project paper also referenced by CBS News and Deceleration at the time.)
In recent San Antonio debates over a planned transition off of coal (and into more gas and renewable resources), nuclear power received little discussion. The city’s failed bid to expand STP more than a decade ago left the city half a billion dollars poorer. And the utility’s leadership (including the head of nuclear operations we spoke to at a recent CPS Energy open house) clearly aren’t convinced a new generation of reactors are ready for prime time. In the absence of any real discussion, the South Texas Project remains, now and apparently for decades into the future, a key component of our energy formula making up historically a quarter (or more) of the electricity powering San Antonio-area homes and businesses.
To understand what that dependence requires of us, Deceleration spoke this week with one of the top experts on nuclear policy, proliferation, and terrorism in the country, Dr. Edwin Lyman. The director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Lyman is also the former president of the Nuclear Control Institute and member of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management. He is the co-author of the 2014 book Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster.
He expressed concern about a move within the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to transfer more security responsibility away from plant owners, a proposal for a problematic new research reactor design at Abilene Christian University, and general public complacency about nuclear safety.
Q&A with Edwin Lyman, Union of Concerned Scientists
Listen in via the Deceleration Podcast
DECELERATION: How do you think people are seeing nuclear power and the risks today? How much attention do you think people should be paying?
EDWIN LYMAN: I think people should be paying more attention then they are to nuclear safety and security issues. Unfortunately, the worst consequences are from events that are either very remote possibilities or they’re hard to assess the possibilities. For example, a terrorist attack. People simply don’t pay attention unless there is something screaming at them as an emergency. So we’ve seen people’s concern about nuclear power in this country wax and wane over time as accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima have happened. People tend to forget when there’s no real news and they become complacent. Then there’s this massive new PR campaign to re-brand nuclear as clean and safe, which is the industry’s overreaction to try to win over hearts and minds to support nuclear expansion. They’ve managed to cast those who are worried about these issues as nervous nellies, as Luddites, but I think that’ misguided. You have to understand where that is coming from. It’s really from from the nuclear industry and its supporters. And I think that has distorted the policy landscape and also the ability to have an intelligent discussion about these issues. So I am concerned about this complacency.
How would you describe the gap between what is understood and what actually happened in terms of ecological and human health after Fukushima and Chernobyl?
The problem is the effects of radiation, especially at low levels, are hard to detect. The industry will say only 25 or 30 people died because of Chernobyl and no one died because of Fukushima and somehow that means it’s all OK. But the insidious thing is that exposure to low-levels of radiation is not going to lead to any immediate or visible health effects but can cause cancer over time. And because it would take pretty significant doses to a lot of people to actually lead to detectable excess cancer rates—background cancer rates are very high, you know, for human beings—so it takes a huge insult to really see those signals. You have to do these studies very, very carefully if you want to look for those kinds of signals. In most cases, we know people are being exposed, were exposed, and continue to be exposed to radiation that was released during those accidents. In most cases those cancers would not be detectable in an epidemiological sense, but that does not mean they are not there.
It’s kind of deceptive to pretend that there is no effect from that exposure. For instance, at Chernobyl there is one type of cancer that because it’s so rare and the exposures were so high that there is little doubt that the excesses were caused by exposure to radioactive iodine. That’s thyroid cancer in children.
Where there were 20,000 excess cancers among children at the time of the accident but most other forms of cancer are not going to be that obvious. But based on forward projections, based upon knowing how much radiation was released, what kind it is and where it was dispersed, you can make estimates that are probably tens of thousands of cancers that will be caused by Chernobyl and probably thousands as a result of Fukushima. But, again, there’s no label on those diseases to say this is what caused it. So the industry and supporters are trying to gaslight people in saying these are totally benign technologies when they are not. It doesn’t mean you can’t use nuclear power, it just means you need to respect its risks. And unfortunately if people are lulled into complacency there’s little support for the measures that are needed to make sure those risks are minimized.
Let me ask you about risk when things are functioning according to whatever regulatory frameworks are working today. I reached out to you originally to talk about terrorist attacks, and worse case, and Nazis in the US. But barring all of that there are issues that occur. I’m wondering if you can speak to that in the way these older plants are operating especially.
The nuts and bolts of nuclear safety are literally that. They are valves that need to open and shut when you need them to. And that takes some level of maintenance and repair and testing to make sure that those all function. And if you are negligent. If the company is trying to save money and cut back on those things, then those valves may not work when they are needed. It points to what you may experience if you have a more severe upset that could potentially evolve into a serious accident you need to have all those safety systems in working order. And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to its credit, is doing a new series of inspections to focus on things like valves because they were finding things across the industry probably as a result of cutting back on maintenance to save money that there were higher levels of valve failures, valve unavailability, and that cumulatively could add up to a serious problem. Another aspect is just the human capital, the environment in which workers carry out their duties for safety and security. And there are some serious issues in safety and security culture where workers are intimidated, where they are afraid to come forward with their concerns. They feel disrespected. Their conditions are not good. And, like any industry, those can add up to serious problems because you require a high level of performance to make sure that nuclear power plants perform safely.
One of the Nazis that are under federal indictment in Ohio [for planning attacks on energy infrastructure] are from Katy, Texas. And one of the founders of these super decentralized and more radical groups had made reference to they had wanted to target a nuclear power plant in Florida.
Exactly. In relation to South Texas Project nuclear complex, I don’t recall all the specifics, there had been concerns that its location was hard to defend and some of its backup generators were not great. I’m just wondering if you could speak to the kinds of things that people look at in terms of nuclear power plant vulnerabilities.
It’s important to understand that no matter how a safe a plant may be with regard to its normal operation that the kind of accidents that may occur that are very infrequent, earthquakes, floods, or just an internal accident that could propagate. Generally those risks are fairly low. Of course that depends on how much you know about flying risks. No matter how safe things look with regards to those things, all bets are off when you are talking about a terrorist attack because terrorists who know what they are doing could sabotage the multiple backup safety systems that are there to protect against accidents. The risk of multiple failures across diverse safety systems is low if it just happens at random. But if someone knows what they are doing they can target all those at the same time. You can’t really put a number on how likely is a terrorist attack to lead to a Chernobyl-type accident. That’s why you generally need to have strong security to prevent terrorists from accessing vital areas of the plant.
So the first vulnerability is, of course, the offsite power lines. And that’s what was targeted in the past by like Earth First, I guess, right? In Arizona those are not protected, as we know. But nuclear power plants depend on those offsite power lines as their primary power source. So whether you see at the Zaporizhzhia [Nuclear Power Station] in Ukraine when explosions were disabling their offsite power lines they were forced to go on emergency backup diesel generators onsite. You can’t operate the reactor when all you are relying on is diesel generators; they have their own vulnerabilities and they need fuel. It’s not a safe condition to not have offsite power for too long. But you have to assume in a terrorist attack that’s the first thing they would cut and they would have no problem doing that. So as part of an organized terrorist attack, the goal would be to destroy as much equipment onsite as would be needed to render inoperable all the backup systems you would need if you lose offsite power, and that includes things like diesel generators or various types of cooling systems and the pumps and the pipes that support those.
So there’s a number of ways you can sabotage a nuclear plant leading to a core melt within a couple of hours or so. If people know what they’re doing, and depending on the details of the plan, it could take only attacks in a couple of places to do that.
So you really need to have security forces to keep adversaries away from this type of equipment. Over time the Nuclear Regulatory Commission strengthened requirements for security and now has what’s called Design Basis Threats that’s a postulated terrorist attack and security forces are required to be able to interdict and neutralize that attack group as the responsibility of the plant owner under the current guidelines or requirements, with a few exceptions. But the issues that UT outline in that paper and I’ve been studying for many decades have to do with whether the assumptions about that threat are realistic or are they lowballing the threat, and are the measures they are taking to respond to the threat that they are required to meet, are they actually going to be good enough? So it’s not only having everything in place but being able to test it is a critical part. So the NRC actually has a requirement which was introduced after 911 partly due to the efforts of groups I work for that they have to be inspected with force on force exercises where the NRC inspectors will stage mock terrorist attacks at see how well the security force does. But the problem is: Security costs money and being able to maintain a full complement of security officers of five shifts a week, you’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of security officers. And that’s expensive, ten millions of dollars per year [inaudible]
How much per year do you estimate?
Well, let’s say there’s 200 guards. Remember you have to have multiple shifts. You’re talking about $20M per year. And that’s just the salaries. There’s all the maintaining the equipment and all the other auxiliary requirements. It costs a lot of money and the industry has always seen that as a good place to cut because if you don’t really believe there’s this threat out there then why are we spending all this money to do that. So their game has been for decades to try to lessen those security burdens and associated costs and they’ve been having some success in the last 10 years or so.
After 9/11 things ratcheted up, not to the extent that think they needed to, but now they’re finding all sorts of ways to pare back. And we’re on the verge of some decisions that the NRC may make that would significantly impair the ability of the plants to withstand attack, which is foolish given this domestic threat that may be increasing.
Can you tell me what that vote is or when that may be coming?
This is a proposal to give more credit to local law enforcement response and therefore to allow onsite forces to have less responsibility, for the owners to have less responsibility. This is something some other countries do. They have minimal onsite security; the main goal of onsite security is if they detect something they call the local cavalry and they’re supposed to show up and do the dirty work. … And that’s a problem in a lot of ways. The obvious thing is local law enforcement, they don’t work for the local utility, they have other responsibilities, and they may not have the funding, or event the training or equipment, to necessarily respond to what could happen. That is compounded now by the potential that local law enforcement may be in on the conspiracy. And also, especially in Texas, I probably don’t need to mention Uvalde. That just shows that local law enforcement, unless they are equipped and have the right plans in place and properly know what to do and coordinate onsite and everything else—if all that is not there, they could not even protect these poor children against this one teenager. So the idea that we’re going to give local law enforcement more responsibility without giving them resources or any of that is downright dangerous. For the life of my I cannot understand why the NRC is even entertaining this proposal but it’s currently a voting paper before the five commissioners and the vote is not in yet. But that could potentially go in this direction of giving local law enforcement these additional responsibilities.
Is there still a window for public sentiment to be effective in this vote?
The public is free to contact the commissioners and tell them what they think. There is no formal role for the public in that. A federal agency can always be sued for arbitrary and capricious decision. That’s becoming easier with the current Supreme Court. But it’s still a huge lift to sue a federal agency. It’s very hard to do at the NRC because judges simply feel like they don’t’ have the knowledge to second-guess this regulatory agency with all this specialized training and subject matter experts. It’s not clear if it would require a change to the rules or not. If they determine it does there would be opportunity for public input through the rule-making process. But if it doesn’t require a new rule, it’s a policy matter for the commission and it’s very hard to influence them.
There’s certainly a lot of money and federal interest through the Inflation Reduction Act and, as you say, the lobbying is very strong. I’ve had people approaching me and asking questions about nuclear power. Is there a place for nuclear power and under what conditions and circumstances?
There may be a place for it, but you can’t cut corners on safety and security. We [at the Union of Concerned Scientists] don’t see it as: nuclear power is inevitable and essential no matter what the risks are and we just have to make it fit. We think it has to meet some bottom-line standards for it to be an acceptable solution. And it’s not clear yet whether the economics is going to be there even with all the subsidies that are being lavished upon it right now that it will be competitive with low-carbon resources that don’t carry these safety and security risks. You gotta take the risks seriously and not just try to gaslight the public into thinking it’s completely harmless and go forward and try to make it as cheap as possible whatever the risks. That’s not the right approach. I feel like the way the industry and their cheerleaders are carrying on now they’re going to make it harder for nuclear power to be deployed safely because they think the public and the public image is the problem and they’re not taking care of their own house.
People are used to talking about Fukushima and Chernobyl, but we certainly have a history of some near misses and some releases in the U.S. that I’m sure you are quite familiar with. And the issue of waste seems to still be forever storage and dilution are the two options.
Well the only viable option for long-term disposal of spent fuel is the deep geological depository and there is no program right now to even find one. So that can they are kicking down the road even further. They try to paper over that issue by pretending there’s going to be some new exciting technology that will be able to make the problem go away. That’s another potentially misleading dangerous direction, which, again, is just distracting from trying to solve the problem in a meaningful way that would enable nuclear power to thrive. They are looking for silver bullets that aren’t there. It’s just going to send us down rabbit holes and potentially pursue very dangerous options like reprocessing spent fuel, which has serious proliferation risks. And you’re not that close to Abilene, I guess. The Abilene Christian University wants to build this research molten salt reactor.
I got the NRC release about this but I just don’t know enough. How significant is this?
It’s a type of nuclear reactor for the life of me I can’t understand why anyone is interested in it because instead of having solid fuel with cladding around it so that you have additional protection against release of radiation this would use liquid fuel where the fission products are constantly bubbling up and being released, so they have to be captured and filtered, but you can’t capture everything.
I don’t know if that campus, if the student body there, really understands what they are in for if this thing goes forward. I think it’s being funded by some wealthy individual who may lose interest if they run into problems, which I am sure that they will.
There was an NRC letter recently that said they had to consult with the Department of Homeland Security on the vulnerabilities of that site in regards to terrorist attack. (For more on this type of reactor, see the UCS report, “‘Advanced’ is Not Always Better.”)
So these are emissions that can’t be captured that will be in the campus environment?
This reactor will get fission-product gases like xenon and krypton that are going to bubble out of the fuel and it has to have this elaborate system of capturing and storing and processing those gases, which is an engineering challenge in itself and it’s not even clear how effective it would be with the amount of money that they have. Certainly, this reactor would be a real threat to that campus.
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