Florida Power's Crystal River station takes on fortresslike features as part of a $3-million upgrade.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2002
CRYSTAL RIVER -- If they can get through the hairpin turns and outlive the spray of bullets from the bombproof guard station, a milelong straightaway awaits.
But as the truck packed with explosives surges toward the nuclear plant, a formidable wedge of steel jumps from the asphalt, stopping the terrorist mission dead.
Not long ago, that scenario might have seemed more at home in an action movie than in Florida Power's energy complex in Crystal River.
With Sept. 11, however, came a new reality. The nuclear plant found itself one of the most vulnerable structures in west central Florida.
The use of jetliners to topple the World Trade Center towers raised fears of similar use against nuclear reactors. In response, the federal government has stepped up efforts to monitor the airspace around the plant and, if needed, can scramble fighter jets, as happened last October when a small plane flew too close.
Acknowledging that plants were not designed with a deliberate jetliner attack in mind, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is studying whether additional structural improvements to reactor buildings are necessary. Results are due in 2003.
For now, the focus is on a land-based attack, which some experts view as more probable.
The guard post and pop-up barricade are only two of the changes in a $3-million security overhaul ordered in February by the NRC. The changes were to be in place by Aug. 31.
In recent weeks, Florida Power has enlarged its armed force by an undisclosed amount, installed trash can-sized concrete pillars and miles of inch-thick steel cable around the perimeter of the nuclear and coal plants.
The utility also has blocked access from the Gulf of Mexico with heavy cable across an intake canal. In June, the U.S. Coast Guard made permanent no-boating zones established up to 3 miles from the plant shortly after Sept. 11.
"The nuclear plant was well-defended before 9/11 within the fence line," said site support manager Don Taylor, who is overseeing the upgrades. "Now we're moving our defensive strategy farther out."
That is most evident at the new guard post. It replaces a simple shack -- not unlike a parking ticket booth -- that was a mile closer to the entrance of the plant and staffed by a single unarmed guard.
After maneuvering through a series of twists in the road, vehicles arrive at the new guard post. With mirrored, bullet-resistant windows and thick steel walls, the station is built to withstand a bomb, the size of which Florida Power would not disclose.
There are gun ports within the building, which has a backup diesel generator. Air conditioning vents are covered with steel plates in the event that someone shoots from the roof.
A surveillance camera is fixed on the station so officials in the nuclear plant can tell whether an attack is under way.
Vehicles approaching the guard station are herded into two groups. Employees pass on one side, while visitors go through an extensive inspection that begins as they drive over a bank of cameras embedded in the road.
From there, a vehicle moves forward a few yards before resting under a catwalk used for aerial inspections. A guard below runs a yellow swab across the steering wheel, door handle and other parts of a vehicle.
The swab is inserted into a $48,000 computer that can determine within seconds whether there are traces of TNT, nitrates, plastic explosives or drugs.
Delivery trucks previously could come and go with relative ease. A new security regulation calls for advance authorization and is strictly enforced, officials say. A moving van for office furniture was turned away Thursday because there was no advance notice of its arrival.
"Most people accept the delays as a way of life here," Taylor said.
Up to seven trains, each 100 cars long and packed with coal, arrive at the complex each week, traveling on tracks that run along the main road. They too will be subjected to camera inspection. A device that can push a train off the track has been installed as an added protection.
What's more, a swinging steel gate has been placed across the tracks to prevent a truck from bypassing the main road, and Florida Power has assigned security patrols to the woods surrounding the plant.