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Fission Stories #127: Helicopter Attack on Point Beach?

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At 10 pm on November 6, 1987, security guards at the Point Beach nuclear plant in Wisconsin spotted helicopters coming in low and fast. The helicopters zipped by so close that they rattled windows in the plant.

The security guards contacted the Federal Aviation Administration at nearby Austin Straubel Field in Green Bay. The airspace over nuclear power plants is restricted and no aircraft were authorized to fly over at any altitude that evening. At 11:19 pm, helicopters buzzed the plant again. After a third fly-by at 11:50pm, the operators declared an Unusual Event, the second lowest of four emergency classifications designated by the NRC.

The aerial intruders turned out to be Army helicopters from Volk Field near Sparta, Wisconsin. According to a National Guard spokesman, the charts used by the helicopter pilots did not show restricted airspace over the plant. In any event, the National Guard would not be flying any more unannounced training exercises over the plant.

A plant spokesman stated that security measures were taken in response to the first over flight, but declined to specify the nature of those actions

It’s reasonable to presume they included the old nuclear attack safety drill, “duck and cover.”

Our Takeaway

It took three unexplained aerial intrusions before operators declared an Unusual Event.

Okay, the first one was obviously an isolated case.

And the second must have been an amazing coincidence.

And the third emptied the jar of lame excuses, forcing the operators to declare an emergency.

Does this mean it would take three reactor melt downs for the operators at Point Beach to declare an emergency?

Not likely – Point Beach only has two reactors.

 

“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.

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About the author: Mr. Lochbaum received a BS in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Tennessee in 1979 and worked as a nuclear engineer in nuclear power plants for 17 years. In 1992, he and a colleague identified a safety problem in a plant where they were working. When their concerns were ignored by the plant manager, the utility, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), they took the issue to Congress. The problem was eventually corrected at the original plant and at plants across the country. Lochbaum joined UCS in 1996 to work on nuclear power safety. He spent a year in 2009-10 working at the NRC Training Center in Tennessee. Areas of expertise: Nuclear power safety, nuclear technology and plant design, regulatory oversight, plant license renewal and decommissioning

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2 Responses

  1. Lenny Sueper says:

    The airspace over nuclear power plants is NOT restricted. Not now and not in 1987. What exists post-9/11 for nuclear plants, hydroelectric dams, and refineries is a NOTAM (“Notice to Airmen”) advising airmen to avoid the airspace above or adjacent to such facilities. The charts the pilots used didn’t show restricted airspace over the plant because there wasn’t any. The only things that would have appeared on their charts would have been symbols identifying flight hazards like high voltage transmission lines and any tall stacks or radio or meteorological towers.

    If the helicopter pilots had evil intent why would they make several high speed passes? Poor aim? Were they trying to build up the nerve (“One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready,…”)?

    What the security force did or didn’t do in response would have been safeguards information, leaving you with nothing to do but make snarky comments.