Finding Nuclear Power Plants

Recently I wrote about the government requiring pilots not to fly near nuclear power plants, and then not telling them where those plants are, because of security concerns. Here's a story about how someone found the exact location of the nuclear power plant in Oyster Creek, N.J., using only publicly available information.

But of course a terrorist would never be able to do that.

Posted on April 6, 2005 at 9:05 AM • 29 Comments

Comments

Israel TorresApril 6, 2005 9:24 AM

Once the information becomes public it pretty much is *impossible* to remove from public knowledge. Information remains free. In real life there are no "memory holes" to rid us of "undesirable" information.

Israel Torres

Michael ZimmerApril 6, 2005 10:17 AM

You can do a search for "nuclear power plant" and the name of a state on Google Maps, and they'll even throw in the satellite image for you!

Christian GruberApril 6, 2005 10:35 AM

Hmmm. Sounds like an application for a really sensitive geiger counter and triangulation. :)

Seriously, however, is an airplane a threat to modern nuclear plant? I was under the impression (but would appreciate correction) that these things are hardened to a degree that a 747 fully fueled wouldn't be able to cause any kind of runaway reaction scenario.

On another note, since when is location such a secret anyway? The pickering nuclear plant near Toronto is quite obvious, and there are even signs from the road, I thought.

cg.

AnonymousApril 6, 2005 10:41 AM

i fly out of detroit frequently, and you can _see_ the plume from the nuke south of the city, from the city. it's even more apparent from the air. a quick google map for detroit, some panning around in the satellite view, and voile.

http://maps.google.com/maps?...

if the government could just hide that pesky condensation, then we'd finally be safe.

Davi OttenheimerApril 6, 2005 11:11 AM

Well, this all sounds like as good a reason as any that nuclear energy has more drawbacks than advantages...perhaps the real lesson is that modern energy generation should be more distributed, less destructive and therefore more resiliant to disruption or compromise.

ArclightApril 6, 2005 12:14 PM

I've seen one analysis showing a fully-loaded F-111 hitting the Seabrook (Shoreham?) containment building registers as a minor seismic event. Since all US plants are designed to survive at least a 0.1G seismic event, this is non-issue, at least as far as safe shutdown, decay heat removal, and containment integrity go. For the most part, that's all a plant operator and regulator need to care about because that's the limiting scenario - can they shut down the reactor, keep it cool and contained.

As for finding nuclear plants, the USNRC has a list of operating plants and is helpful enough to provide you a map [http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/map-power-reactors.html] and a list of plant names [http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/list-power-reactor-units.html] with approximate locations (distance and direction to nearest city.)

Take "4 MI N of Glen Rose,TX" as a starting point and poke around Google maps for a few minutes (tip: the satellite maps have better detail.) Look for a big paved area surrounded by woods away from houses next to a large body of water. You should eventually find a big square building or a concrete dome (the reactor building), a longer, lower building (turbine building), with some water tanks and electrical switchgear nearby. Also, look for remnants of a rail line or a slip - they had to ship the reactor there, either by boat or train - it's not something you can just drop into a FedEx bag.

If you're really interested, grab a recent Inspection Report [http://www.nrc.gov/NRR/OVERSIGHT/ASSESS/listofrpts_body.html] and look up the mailing address; you'll either get the corporate headquarters or the plant site. That's almost too easy.

Trying to hide nuclear plants is impossible and counterproductive. As a society, we should know where they are so we can make informed decisions about where and how we live; that's why copies of each plant's 10+-volume safety analysis report and environmental plan are on the shelves in public libraries across the country, at least prior to the current administration.

Personally, I'm confident that American plants are well-equipped to deal with natural and man-made threats and have been over the past decade whether the public knows where the plants are or not. Then again, I spent four years analyzing a plant for risk and calculating the effects of severe accidents.

ProbitasApril 6, 2005 1:41 PM

We had better hide all the grain elevators, too, since they are so durn explosive. And effective immediately, it's blunt scissors for everyone.

The futility of trying to "hide" nuclear plants, like most other acts of "security theater" is like peing your pants in a dark suit. You get a warm feeling, and nobody really notices.

DonApril 6, 2005 1:51 PM

cg - as you accurately assumed, 'experimental' aircraft (which most small hobbyist planes are classified as under FAA definitions) pose no threat to power plants. Most of them are lighter than a VW bug and if you've ever seen one of those go head to head against a light post you can imagine how insignificant the resulting impact against a cooling tower would be.

There may be some 'choke points' in society you could smack a small plane into and cause some real disruption - maybe a power distribution center where you could down a lot of lines and cause a serious short - but there are so many other things that take less training and effort and are harder to thwart, a la suicide bomber on the bus.

Personally I am amazed we haven't seen suicide bombers taking advantage of the artifically created crowds at security checkpoints. No flight training needed for that and it could easily cause as much flying fear as 9/11 did.

AnonymousApril 6, 2005 2:40 PM

Considering that APOA still provides maps with the "temporary no flight zones" marked on them (a quick google search found that one). They give you the general area and google maps allows you to find the exact location. It took me about five minutes to find a satellite image of a nuclear power plant in a state I've never even been to.

Luke StrasApril 6, 2005 3:38 PM

cg:

Not only is the Pickering power plant near Toronto bleedingly obvious both from the ground (how can you miss that many power lines going to one place?) and from the air, but a friend tells me that it's used as an approach marker for the City Centre Airport.

In fact, this friend took me up for a flight a week or so ago, and he had me fly a turn over the plant to line up for a landing.

AMApril 6, 2005 7:51 PM

Searching on the internet for the location of a nuclear power plant is NOT what a 'terrorist' is going to do. Most plants have cooling towers and smoke plumes that make them visible for 10's of miles around. You just follow the skyline and DRIVE to the plant. You can just stand outside the gate and make whatever measurements, triangulations you want. No one is watching you and even if they were, that's all they can do.

Most plants are on a river so they'll have an ample supply of cool water. This means that, in most circumstances, you can STAND on the bank opposite the plant and also make any measurements you want.

Personally I find the cooling towers and their plumes to be aesthetically pleasing. I often take pictures of my local plant from its property line. There is nothing wrong with this activity.

Theoretically you could stand in the same spot and pick off the cars in the parking lot with an RPG. That would definitely make national news.

A plane crash into the reactor building MIGHT cause a big leak of radioactive material.

A plane crash into the holding pools for nuclear waste WILL cause a huge leak of radioactive material. These holding pool buildings are not hardened targets and could probably be identified visually from the air en route. This is the danger.

On one side, nuclear reactors make great targets because the fear generated and clean-up costs incurred would be massive. On the other side, the number of immediate (and even long term) deaths would be pretty minimal.

At Chernobyl 31 people were killed in the accident. Over time perhaps another 3000 will die from cancer related to the incident...out of an affected population of 9.5 million. The World Trade Center and building complexes like it are far easier and more effective targets.

ELBApril 7, 2005 1:35 AM

The address of all CANDU nuclear generating stations in the world is available on the CANDU web site [http://www.candu.org/]. This include the address of all the Canadian nuclear generating stations.

If you care for the longitude and lattitude of the stations (or at least the Canadian ones), just type in the address into multimap [http://multimap.co.uk/].

ACApril 7, 2005 7:56 AM

As an NJ native, I feel that I'd be remiss if I didn't point out one small error: the power plant mentioned is named "Oyster Creek". It is located in Forked River, NJ.

hwkApril 7, 2005 9:33 AM

Maybe I am missing the point. What is so clever about finding out the location of a nuclear power plant? Just follow the pathes of high voltage power lines. Sooner or later you will discover an NPP!

ZwackApril 7, 2005 10:56 AM

hwk : I think the fact that the person is in Austria and that the information he found is apparently SSI does make it interesting. Several people have suggested that it is easier to find a power plant on the ground. However if you are planning an attack you might well be at a remote location. If you were outside the US and you wanted to check out a nuclear plant you wouldn't come here and then drive randomly around until you found one. You would try and find out roughly where they were first.

As for finding a nuclear power plant by following the power lines, around here (Oregon) they are much more likely to take you to a dam than a nuclear plant.

Z.

Davi OttenheimerApril 7, 2005 11:54 AM

@Zwack
The point is that security does not come from obscurity. Smart attackers will scope out locations in great detail and plan carefully. And even if they can not reach a site themselves, they can use informants in the immediate vicinity around and sometimes inside the target location. Security comes from the same line of reasoning that an attacker uses, an extremely thorough risk analysis.

This discussion reminds me of a situation I vaguely remember from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that involved surviving a dangerous monster. Adams wrote that if you close *your* eyes, this monster would think that *you* are invisible and will let you escape unharmed. Unfortunately, that is purely fiction. Nonetheless, someone should tell the US government that trying to make the public blind will not make the threats disappear.

fingersApril 7, 2005 8:15 PM

Actually the resolution is the same. The plants and their support buildings are huge.

EWRApril 9, 2005 12:47 AM

There is another angle to this concern of satellite imaging. Look at the White House in Washington, DC and the buildings to the right and left of the White House. There is obvious blurring/alteration to the satellite images from both the maps.google.com and terraserver.microsoft.com websites. Someone does not want you to know what is on the rooftops there, but the nuclear power plants have no such blurring or alterations. You can even get a closer view of the Seabrook NH nuclear power plant than the Oyster Creek one (google has a more recent image of Seabrook than terraserver).

RossApril 11, 2005 12:48 AM

The resolution is not the same. The tile featuring the nuclear plant is high res so we can look down the gaping maw of a cooling tower 8-) Awesome.

Henrique LemosMarch 25, 2006 5:52 PM

I think that the nuclear energy is the best thing tha the humanity found,it's clean and efficient.The probability of happen a accident is very low.I'm brazilian and is a pleasure writen in this page,thanks

DarrenMarch 16, 2008 12:39 PM

A jetliner (made of thin aluminum frame, some flat titanium disks in the engine, etc) would barely scratch a containment building (walls are 4-foot thick rebar and concrete). You'd have a bang, a fireball, and a bunch of people inside the container building saying "what was that?"

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