Dozens More Mystery Drone Incursions Over U.S. Nuclear Power Plants Revealed

Dozens More Mystery Drone Incursions Over U.S. Nuclear Power Plants Revealed

I recently described how a swarm of drones flew in a restricted area at Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant on two successive nights last September. A new cache of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) reveals how 24 nuclear sites suffered at least 57 drone incursions from 2015 to 2019 – and Palo Verde itself was overflown again in December, despite new security measures.

The documents were obtained from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission by Douglas D. Johnson on behalf of the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU). The SCU’s main interest is in anomalous aerospace phenomena, more commonly known as UFOs, but Johnson uncovered a series of incidents involving something less exotic but potentially more threatening: commercial drones.

In the September incidents, a swarm of five or six large drones flew over the Unit 3 nuclear reactor at Palo Verde in Arizona for about eighty minutes, a length of time which suggested they were carrying out a thorough survey of the site. The documents released at the time referred to a similar incident at Limerick Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania.

Johnson sent a follow-up request to get more details. The response was a terse list of fifty-seven security incidents (SIDs) involving drones, running from December 2014 to October 2019. This provides little more than the date and location, with no details of the number or type of drones involved. We do not know how many involved multiple, simultaneous drone flyovers. At the time the list was generated, three of the incidents were listed as ‘Open’ and five ‘Closed Resolved.’ but the overwhelming majority, 49 of them, were ‘Closed Unresolved.’  This indicates that for 85% of the cases the NRC has no idea who the perpetrators are or what they intended, and has given up on finding them.

There were seven drone incidents in 2017, rising to 21 in 2018, the last full year for which numbers were given.

Twelve of the sites had only reported a single incident, but others had seen several. Limerick had five drone sightings, Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Cleveland, Ohio, had six and Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo in California had no less than seven separate incidents from December 2015 to September 2018, all of them unresolved. The scale and number of intrusions indicate that this is not a local issue, and raise the possibility that drone overflights could be carried out by a large, coordinated organization.

While most of the sites were nuclear reactors, there were also three drone incursions over spent nuclear fuel storage sites, including Trojan in Oregon and Rancho Seco in California where radioactive waste is stored in steel canisters inside giant concrete casks.

The new release also indicates that a third incident occurred at Palo Verde in December 2019, this time apparently with only two drones, described as ‘industrial-sized craft’ three feet across, similar to those previously seen. As with the two previous incident , they were exploring the Unit 3 reactor area. Following the September drone incident, Palo Verde was supposed to be protected by drone detection technology provided by ‘Area Armor’ (likely a typo for Aerial Armor) to pinpoint the drone operator within a 13-mile radius. The idea was that anyone flying a drone would be rapidly apprehended by site security personnel. This does not appear to have worked, and again the incident was closed as unresolved.

The big question is how much of a danger such drone overflights pose, and there has been some lively online discussion on this point. While reactors themselves are protected by thick concrete domes able to withstand the impact of a crashing airliner, the above-ground pools in which spend nuclear fuel is stored may be far more vulnerable. A 2011 report by the Institute of Policy Studies noted that over 40,000 tons of highly radioactive waste is stored in pools, many above ground: “some of the largest concentrations of radioactive material on the planet.” These pools are not heavily protected, but are in light structures similar to big-box stores and car dealerships.

A 2003 report noted how vulnerable such pools were to terrorist action, simply by making a hole in the pool to drain out the cooling water and causing the stored fuel to overheat: “We warned that U.S. spent fuel pools were vulnerable to acts of terror. The drainage of a pool might cause a catastrophic radiation fire, which could render an area uninhabitable much greater than that created by the Chernobyl accident.”

Robert Alvarez, author of the 2003 and 211 reports, reiterated the danger from terrorist attacks on fuel pools in 2017.

Greenpeace sought to highlight how easy it would be to hit such a target by crashing a drone into a French nuclear plant in 2018. How effective small drones would be is open to question. Certainly, small drones can be highly destructive against vulnerable targets, shown in incident where they blew up ammunition dumps and destroyed thousands of tons of munitions in Ukraine. The two-pound warhead fired by the shoulder-launched M72 rocket launcher can make a dime-sized hole through two feet of reinforced concrete. The drones seen at Palo Verde could carry something significantly bigger.

Drones might also locate, identify, distract or even target security personnel as part of a larger terrorist action. If drone flyovers become routine, security may cease to consider they are a danger – until it is too late.

The documents indicate that even within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the evaluation of the threats, vulnerabilities and consequences of drone overflights is still ongoing. In one meeting on security, “Staff pointed out that no flyovers have yet exhibited a threat to nuclear power plant.”

That may sound reassuring. But as long as swarms of mystery drones are able to fly over nuclear facilities with impunity, there must surely be cause for concern.

Source Article