Fission Stories #28: Navy (or Naïve) Nuke

January 11, 2011
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

In the early morning hours of Sunday, May 11, 1997, an intoxicated trainee climbed a fence thinking he was returning to his barracks at the Great Lakes Naval Base near Chicago, Illinois. Apparently, this navy base does not have a gate, forcing people to scale fences to enter and leave. Or, perhaps the trainee went to the trouble of climbing the fence to avoid disturbing the MPs at the gate in the middle of the night. Or, maybe the trainee could not find the gate in his inebriated condition.

In any case, the trainee had the right state but the wrong facility. He scaled the fence only to find himself in the isolation zone between the two perimeter security fences at the Zion nuclear plant. The trainee activated the plant’s security system by climbing over the fence. Armed guards responded and apprehended him. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital for the treatment of lacerations received while climbing and then falling from the outer fence. Security personnel interviewed the individual at the hospital and determined that he had no malevolent intent (other than to himself). The man was turned over to military authorities upon release from the medical facility.

This event occurred on the 109th anniversary of the birth of famed songwriter Irving Berlin. Berlin, who composed such standards as God Bless America and White Christmas, wrote a song that may have been this Navy Nuke’s favorite—Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.

Our Takeaway

This episode, however entertaining, provides insight into the challenges faced by security officers at nuclear plants. Alarms, such as this perimeter fence one, could indicate a drunken sailor being off course, an animal hitting the fence, a false signal, or the opening gambit in a legitimate attack with life and death at stake. Maintaining vigilance through many false alarms is the key to being prepared to thwart the real thing should it occur.

Just as security personnel must take every alarm seriously, plant owners must take the security function seriously. Security personnel must be viewed, and treated, as priceless defenders of company assets and public health. Security personnel defending America’s infrastructure perform as vital a role as military personnel defending America’s interests in foreign countries.

“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.