Nu­clear power plants

As long as nu­clear power ex­ists, there will be at­tempts to swipe its ra­dioac­tive fuel. Meet the peo­ple try­ing to keep that from hap­pen­ing.

Popular Science - - CONTENTS - by sarah scoles pho­to­graphs by the voorhes


Steve Hill paces—pa­trols, re­ally—in front of four pro­jec­tor screens in a class­room at San­dia Na­tional Lab­o­ra­to­ries, out­side Al­bu­querque, New Mex­ico. He has close-cropped hair, a straight back, and a swag­ger­ing de­meanor that to­gether sug­gest he’s ei­ther for­mer mil­i­tary or law en­force­ment. If you were un­sure, your doubts dis­solve when you hear him call dice “a tool to de­ter­mine chance-based out­come.”

The phras­ing could be right out of a po­lice re­port. So yeah, he used to be a cop. And now he’s a “high-risk se­cu­rity pro­fes­sional” at San­dia. On this May af­ter­noon, Hill is stand­ing in front of a room crowded with reg­u­la­tors, power-plant em­ploy­ees, re­search re­ac­tor run­ners, and other types who work with nu­clear ma­te­ri­als. They’ve come from all over the world to take the lab’s se­cu­rity train­ing course. Through lec­tures, tech demos, case stud­ies, and hands-on ex­er­cises, they learn how best to keep their ra­dioac­tive stores out of the wrong hands by con­struct­ing the strong­est pos­si­ble pro­tec­tions around them. Though used for good pur­poses at their fa­cil­i­ties, ura­nium and plu­to­nium are ura­nium and plu­to­nium—if they get out of peace­ful hands and into other ones, they can do very real dam­age.

Hill is giv­ing his trainees in­struc­tions for a table­top ex­er­cise in which they will form op­pos­ing teams and game out an at­tack on a fic­tional nu­clear com­plex, the La­gassi In­sti­tute of Medicine and Physics, where a stash of plu­to­nium pulses at the core. The good guys will try to pro­tect it from the bad guys, who will de­vise a plan to in­fil­trate. By play­ing out sce­nar­ios on pa­per, par­tic­i­pants can find weak knees in their own site’s de­sign, and dream up ways to brace them.

Dur­ing my two-day stay, I’m never left alone. My chap­er­one, a press of­fi­cer who is not per­mit­ted to be more than a few feet from me at any time, leans over and whis­pers, “This is get­ting to be more and more like Dun­geons & Drag­ons.” She’s not wrong.

I look around the room at the at­tendee name cards. Each lists the per­son’s home­land: Aus­tralia, Canada, Congo, Ja­pan, Lithua­nia, Philip­pines, Poland, Slo­vakia, South Africa, United Arab Emi­rates. Some peo­ple here are in charge of se­cu­rity at a spe­cific fa­cil­ity, while oth­ers are reg­u­la­tors and pol­i­cy­mak­ers, or plant in­spec­tors.

Yoko Kawakubo, a woman from the Ja­pan Atomic En­ergy Agency in Tokai, takes stu­dious notes. Back home, she’s in charge of a na­tional train­ing course on nu­clear safe­guards that serves not just the is­land, but also emerg­ing Mid­dle Eastern and Asian coun­tries. “I just started,” she tells me later. “I’m new.” And that’s true, but she’s been work­ing for years on other nu­clear se­cu­rity projects and on non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, both es­pe­cially fraught in the only coun­try where an ac­tual nu­clear bomb— dropped by the na­tion run­ning this course—has de­t­o­nated.

My at­ten­tion re­turns to Hill as he ex­plains the rules of nu­clear D&D. Time begins, he says, when the good guys first de­tect the bad guys try­ing to pen­e­trate La­gassi. “I have an AK-47,” he says, pre­tend­ing to be a bad

guy. “I’m go­ing to pull it out. Bang-bang. That’s a point of de­tec­tion.”

Al­though this seems an ob­vi­ous de­tail, the stu­dents jot it down in their note­books. Hill closes with a fi­nal thought: “If there are an equal num­ber of good and bad guys, the bad guys will likely win.” Be­cause the bad guys will choose the time, place, and method—all of which they can tai­lor to suit the fa­cil­ity’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. “The ad­ver­sary has the el­e­ment of sur­prise,” he says. The class ex­its and heads to­ward other rooms, where we’ll play the game.

The ex­er­cises are Kawakubo’s fa­vorite part of the course, she tells me. Prac­tice makes per­fect, she be­lieves, and there’s only so much of that you get in real life. Plus, she rel­ishes the op­por­tu­nity to ask ques­tions of peo­ple who aren’t new to this. “Dur­ing lunchtime, I al­ways in­ter­rupt my leader,” she says.

Kawakubo and her 49 class­mates are far from the first schol­ars of this strange dis­ci­pline. In fact, this is the 40th an­niver­sary of the pro­gram. For­mally called the In­ter­na­tional Train­ing Course on the Phys­i­cal Pro­tec­tion of Nu­clear Ma­te­rial and Nu­clear Fa­cil­i­ties, it be­gan in 1978, when Congress passed the Nu­clear Non-Pro­lif­er­a­tion Act. The leg­is­la­tion fo­cused on lim­it­ing the breed­ing of nu­clear weapons while si­mul­ta­ne­ously fos­ter­ing peace­ful uses of atomic en­ergy. That’s a tough


bal­ance to man­age, be­cause while only some ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial is pure enough to be called weapons-grade, nearly any ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial can be used to make some kind of weapon.

The act also de­mands that the U.S.—as the coun­try that of­fi­cially set off the nu­clear-arms chain re­ac­tion—shoul­der some in­ter­na­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity. To wit, “the Depart­ment of En­ergy … shall es­tab­lish and op­er­ate a safe­guards and phys­i­cal se­cu­rity train­ing pro­gram,” it de­clares.

To cre­ate and run the course, the DOE looked to its na­tional labs. The gov­ern­ment had founded many of the re­search cen­ters dur­ing the Man­hat­tan Project, which de­vel­oped Lit­tle Boy and Fat Man, both dropped on Ja­pan. The labs have since helped cre­ate a host of other bombs that were de­t­o­nated in the desert or still sit in si­los. San­dia Na­tional Labs gen­er­ated the non­nu­clear parts of that first weapons ini­tia­tive.

San­dia com­prises a sprawl­ing com­plex, much of it in­side the gates of Kirt­land Air Force Base. Its low, bland build­ings, a mix of brick and ce­ment fash­ioned into the rec­tan­gles pop­u­lar on 1970s college cam­puses, spread over open ter­rain dot­ted with bunkers and the oc­ca­sional wind tun­nel. To the east, the San­dia moun­tains—so named be­cause, like the desert, they turn wa­ter­melon-pink dur­ing sun­set— loom over the flat floor, look­ing like they’re lit from within. This lab leads the oth­ers in ex­per­tise about phys­i­cal pro­tec­tion: how to keep peo­ple phys­i­cally away from your valu­ables—your ura­nium, your ar­mory, your peo­ple. That’s why it hosts this train­ing course. Ad­di­tion­ally, the in­struc­tors are ex­perts in trans­porta­tion se­cu­rity, nu­clear safe­guards, in­ter­na­tional pol­icy, and risk man­age­ment.

Nowa­days, the course is co-spon­sored by the Na­tional Nu­clear Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which re­sponds to atomic emer­gen­cies around the world, and by the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency, a United Na­tions–af­fil­i­ated group that fos­ters peace­ful nu­clear tech­nol­ogy.

Kawakubo and her peers work on those ap­pli­ca­tions—the kind that make en­ergy for cities and sci­en­tific data for physi­cists. So it’s a lit­tle strange for them to con­tem­plate the vi­o­lence that oth­ers could in­voke. Kawakubo says that up un­til the 2011 earth­quake that took down the Fukushima re­ac­tor, her coun­try was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a nu­clear re­nais­sance and peo­ple had pretty pos­i­tive feel­ings about it. “The fear was not so big for the pub­lic in that pe­riod,” she says. “We had some kind of mood that we should pro­mote nu­clear power.” Fukushima left peo­ple feel­ing warier. And not with­out rea­son. Now, Kawakubo has to think through all the other things that could go wrong.

As the five game groups edge to­ward their table­tops, I de­cide to use the bath­room be­fore the ex­er­cise starts. My chap­er­one in­sists she has to come with me and stand out­side my stall door. I joke about es­cap­ing through the win­dow, and she coun­ters, very se­ri­ously, that I’m not al­lowed in bath­rooms with win­dows, so that won’t be a prob­lem.

We can de­bate the ne­ces­sity of re­stroom guard­ing, but the course it­self is more im­por­tant than most peo­ple re­al­ize. It turns out the IAEA has logged 1,174 in­ci­dents of con­firmed or likely acts of traf­fick­ing nu­clear ma­te­rial be­tween 1993 (just be­fore it es­tab­lished its data­base) and 2016. Those are only the ones they know about. Be­sides that, there have been 1,894 in­ci­dents of unau­tho­rized trans­port of nu­clear ma­te­rial. To­day, trainees prac­tice on pa­per how to guard against it.

I fol­low a group of nine led by Robert Bruneau, a tall guy with a closed-mouth smile, who spe­cial­izes in the cy­ber­se­cu­rity of nu­clear power plants. He stands out­side the cir­cle of stu­dents, who be­gin to set lit­tle plas­tic Army fig­urines on a blue­print of the La­gassi In­sti­tute—half of them rep­re­sent­ing the in­vaders and half the pro­tec­tors.

On a big sheet of pa­per taped to the wall, a sam­ple at­tack plan shows, in neat col­umns, what the bad guys might do: Drive up, use a lad­der to climb the bar­rier wall, ap­proach the in­ner fa­cil­ity on foot. The good guys, in their own col­umns, start to track how they will re­act. For each step, both sides slide the plas­tic fig­ures around the blue­print.

When it’s time to get away, a trainee play­ing one of the bad guys takes Matchbox cars out of a Zi­ploc bag, and like a child play­ing Quiet NASCAR, rolls the ve­hi­cles to­ward the fa­cil­ity.

“Wait,” the team referee says. The cars brake. “Are those blue squares build­ings?” he asks, re­fer­ring to shapes on the blue­prints.

“Yeah,” the driver says.

“You can’t drive over them,” the referee re­sponds. It’s a strange re­minder that this is all just a rep­re­sen­ta­tion, for pre­tend. Nonethe­less, we still have to fol­low all the rules.

In an­other room nearby, led by in­struc­tor Matt Erd­man, who is a San­dia phys­i­cal se­cu­rity ex­pert, the bad-guy team’s plan is also taped up, and also in­volves Matchbox cars: “1. Run to wall 2. Jump wall 3. Into car 4. DRIVE INTO SUN­SET.”

Right af­ter I walk into this se­cond sce­nario, the red (bad) team reaches the in­ner door and rolls the 10-sided die—the tool to de­ter­mine chance-based out­come—to re­veal whether a gun­shot kills a blue team mem­ber (yes). Then a blue shoots a red. Roll the die. Red dies. An­other die roll. An­other blue dies. The bad guys push on, breach the vault, and grab La­gassi’s ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial.

Jeana Lee Sablay, a re­search spe­cial­ist at Philip­pine Nu­clear Re­search In­sti­tute, picks up the die and tapes it to the red team’s es­cap­ing plas­tic man. “The plu­to­nium,” she ex­plains, smil­ing.

It is key, stu­dents learn, to de­tect in­trud­ers as soon as is pos­si­ble; the farther away you can see your tres­passers coming, the bet­ter. Build a bet­ter de­tec­tion sys­tem, sta­tion more cam­eras and more guards. Next, they should de­lay the thieves so as to in­crease the time be­tween tres­pass and ac­tual encounter with ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial. More walls, more fences, more locked rooms. Sep­a­rate your valu­ables so it’s harder for the bad guys to grab and go. That can mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween fig­ures car­ry­ing a ra­dioac­tive die into the world or be­ing carted into court (or coffins, if we’re be­ing mor­bid). Un­for­tu­nately, at the close of this ex­er­cise, the bad guys DRIVE INTO SUN­SET.

The next day, ev­ery­one re­turns to learn that per­haps the prob­lem isn’t al­ways a red team try­ing to drive off into the sun­set. Per­haps it’s just a guy who wears a red shirt, a guy you see ev­ery day, sim­ply do­ing his job. Un­til he’s not.

“We want you to un­der­stand that there is an in­sider threat,” says Joel Lewis, a nu­clear se­cu­rity spe­cial­ist from Lawrence Liver­more Labs. Also: You could be it. “All of us are in­sid­ers at a fa­cil­ity,” he con­tin­ues. “They’d let us in the gate. We have the po­ten­tial.”

Take Leonid Smirnov. The en­gi­neer had been with the Luch Sci­en­tific Pro­duc­tion As­so­ci­a­tion in Podolsk, Rus­sia, for 25 years, work­ing on re­ac­tors that sup­plied nu­clear ma­te­rial to the coun­try’s space pro­gram. In 1993, a time when post-Soviet wages were down and Smirnov was hard up, he read a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle about the value of the kind of highly en­riched ura­nium he han­dled ev­ery day.

He needed a stove. He needed a re­frig­er­a­tor. He had an idea. He be­gan mov­ing minute quan­ti­ties of the el­e­ment into lead-lined jars when his co-work­ers weren’t look­ing. He’d take them home, stash them on his porch. He was pa­tient, tak­ing only amounts smaller than the fa­cil­ity’s er­ror mar­gins. When he’d done so more than 20 times, ac­cret­ing more than a kilo­gram, he set off for Moscow, con­fi­dent he’d find a buyer. In­stead, au­thor­i­ties ap­pre­hended him at the Podolsk train sta­tion—not be­cause they sus­pected him, but be­cause he’d run into neigh­bors who’d been steal­ing bat­ter­ies from their own work­place, and po­lice searched the whole group.

A lot of nu­clear vil­lains are like this: not repro­bates, merely hu­mans who need some­thing and see a way to get it. The gap be­tween good and bad isn’t as wide as it seems. Which is some­thing the In­ter­na­tional Train­ing Course slams home hard.

It’s strange to think of a seed like that stuck in the core of our be­ings, waiting for a crit­i­cal mass to pop through the sur­face. Af­ter the lec­ture, we all look at one an­other, I think, a lit­tle more sus­pi­ciously, as we leave the class­room and walk to­ward a fa­cil­ity that, un­til 2007, held Cat­e­gory I nu­clear ma­te­rial—the kind most likely to be­come part of a mis­sile. San­dia kept the place in­tact, with its old se­cu­rity mea­sures and ra­dioac­tiv­ity con­tain­ers, to help train teams like this one.

Out­side, the sun beats down and blinds. We walk past a high fence and through a set of dou­ble doors, one of which has a sign warn­ing “there has been an in­crease in unau­tho­rized dis­clo­sures to un­cleared in­di­vid­u­als.” This build­ing leads to an in­te­rior court­yard, where a walk­way goes down into the old pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity. There are metal de­tec­tors, badge sen­sors, pin pads, and guys with guns. This lat­ter as­pect is strangely un­fa­mil­iar to Kawakubo. She laughs ner­vously as she edges past them into a poorly lit room. (We learn later the firearms were fake.) A bunch of con­tain­ers that look like paint cans sit on an in­dus­trial metal shelf. Tam­per-ev­i­dent seals re­sem­bling blue painter’s tape span their lids, pre­tend­ing to pro­tect the imag­i­nary ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial in­side.

This, Lewis says, is the Spring­field Pro­cess­ing Plant. The class is to look for some­thing amiss—any­thing in­di­cat­ing in­sider tam­per­ing. The stu­dents poke around, pick up the cans, set them down, and gen­er­ally try to look busy. Then Kawakubo finds it: a bro­ken seal. She walks over to a scale and dis­cov­ers that the con­tainer is lighter than it should be. Ra­dioac­tive ma­te­rial is miss­ing—but where has it gone?

The stu­dents scour the space for the atoms that, were they real, could kill them. Soon some­one finds it

in an empty can, ready to be hauled out with the trash.

Lewis urges Kawakubo and her peers to think like criminals and imag­ine how this room abets theft. If you were an in­sider, how would you pull a Smirnov? And if you wanted to thwart a Smirnov, how would you do so?

Don’t put your empty cans in the same place as your full ones, the stu­dents say. In­stall more lights. Add cam­eras to the cor­ners. Wand a Geiger counter over em­ploy­ees when they leave. If there’s an emer­gency evac­u­a­tion, wand ev­ery­one once they get to the safe room.

“Your se­cu­rity needs to guard against mis­takes—be­cause they are ex­actly what an in­sider threat will ex­ploit,” an­other in­struc­tor, Michael Tuell, tells us. And what stops peo­ple from go­ing rogue isn’t an ap­peal to their moral com­pass. It’s know­ing there’s a speed trap. “One of the things that helps ev­ery­body stay good is their chances of get­ting caught.”

As ev­ery­one trudges back to the class­room, Kawakubo and I visit an area where San­dia sci­en­tists test out se­cu­rity sys­tems for in­dus­try and de­fense or­ga­ni­za­tions. In­side a gravel-cov­ered, fenced rec­tan­gle lurks a mul­ti­tude of phys­i­cal pro­tec­tion mech­a­nisms. We walk in front of a mi­crowave sen­sor, which works like the lasers that de­tect in­trud­ers in bank-heist movies. Then there’s a chain-link fence criss­crossed with fiber-op­tic ca­ble. If you touch it, the light’s path through the ca­ble changes. Pre­tend­ing to be heis­ters, we bend it be­fore step­ping into the ac­tive in­frared sen­sor, which feels for hu­man heat. Be­ware, the guide warns, the back­ward-barbed wire.

They don’t just proac­tively test equip­ment here, the guard points out. They also demo it to spe­cial forces so they can learn how to cir­cum­vent these same ob­sta­cles—should they, say, encounter a fiber-op­tic fence while in­fil­trat­ing an en­emy in­stal­la­tion.

This un­set­tling du­al­ity—in the po­ten­tial of raw el­e­ments, in the na­ture of ev­ery­day peo­ple—had nee­dled me through­out the en­tire visit. Es­pe­cially when I would get up af­ter a lec­ture to toss a cof­fee cup into the trash can 5 feet away, and my chap­er­one would shadow me: When peo­ple treat you like you’re about to do some­thing wrong—es­cape through a bath­room win­dow, pocket some plu­to­nium dur­ing a fire drill—it al­most makes you want to rebel. I felt like run­ning away only be­cause some­one treated me like I would. The sur­veil­lance made me feel not just like the au­thor­i­ties thought I could be bad, but like I ac­tu­ally might be, or might want to be.

All of us, like this tech­nol­ogy, show one of two faces, de­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances. We could be the de­fend­ers or the in­fil­tra­tors. The pro­tec­tors or the threat. Plu­to­nium pow­ers space­ships and also ex­plodes over cities. Bombs both de­fend and kill. Kawakubo smiles at our guide and nods, silent, as she places her hand in front of an­other sen­sor. It’s up to her, and her class­mates, to make sure the good guys stay good—and win.

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