Journalists at The War Zone Tyler Rogoway and Joseph Trevithick, with the support of research completed by Douglas D. Johnson, a volunteer researcher affiliated with the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies (SCU), investigated a series of drone incursions at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generation Station in Arizona in late 2019. Rogoway and Trevithick analyzed the incident, which included direct communications of when the drone sightings occurred, what information was known at the time, and how the teams responded. Here is what they learned:
Palo Verde’s existing security system did not prepare them for the drone incursions, and they join a long line of power facilities that have been plagued by illegal drones. Although no damage was reported at Palo Verde, open questions remain about who the drones belonged to, why they were flying, and what information they gathered.
After a thorough investigation from the U.S. FBI, DHS and other government agencies, Rogoway and Trevithick share, “the helplessness and even cavalier attitude toward the drone incident as it was unfolding by those that are tasked with securing one of America's largest and most sensitive nuclear facilities serves as an alarming and glaring example of how neglected and misunderstood this issue is.”
Drone Incidents at Nuclear Facilities Are a Global Security Crisis
Advances in drone technology have brought numerous applications and various benefits to society, and the threat of misuse should not be discounted. Aviation regulators such as The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibit drones from flying over designated national security-sensitive facilities, including nuclear plants. This does not stop drone pilots with malicious intent.
Within the past few years, numerous incidents have occurred with small drones that disrupt the security of sensitive facilities, including several nuclear power plants.
- In October 2014, French power company Électricité de France confirmed that seven nuclear plants across France observed unauthorized drones above their facilities.
- Drones threatened the security at Savannah River Site (SRS), a U.S. Department of Energy facility outside of Augusta, Georgia, used for nuclear material processing and storage. In late June and early July 2016, eight drones were spotted by the security staff.
- In 2016, a daring drone pilot flew over a cooling tower at the Liebstadt nuclear power plant in Switzerland, and shared his video publicly on YouTube. “I wanted to make people think about how easy it is to get to nuclear power plants with such an aircraft,” the drone pilot shared.
- Looking to gain attention for environmental causes, in July 2018, Greenpeace activists intentionally crashed a drone into a French nuclear plant to highlight the lack of security around the facility. In January 2019, they followed-up their efforts by using a drone to drop a smoke bomb over a nuclear facility containing irradiated fuel.
Mitigating Physical & Surveillance Threats at Nuclear Facilities with Drone Detection
Airspace security technology must be incorporated as a primary detection mechanism for nuclear facilities, first to understand the occurrence rate of drones in the airspace, and second, to enable security teams to defend themselves.
Drones at nuclear facilities pose a physical and surveillance threat, including:
- Unintentional (hobbyist) crashing in critical areas or on employees
- Intentional activists (trespassing, disrupting operations, destroying property, etc.)
- Reconnaissance and criminals extracting security procedures/operations
- Environmentalist groups capturing photos or videos for negative publicity
- Competitors and third parties spying for industry secrets
The Solution: Extend Security Systems to the Lower Airspace
Nuclear sites need to conduct a vulnerability assessment of their airspace activity and quantify the actual occurrence of drones in their airspace. The airspace evaluation is accomplished with Dedrone sensors and software, which are installed onsite and active within minutes, immediately tracking drone activity.
With a vulnerability assessment, nuclear security teams can answer:
- How often or at what times is the drone there?
- Can we correlate drone activity with any activity within the organization?
- Does our level of attention by the media or outside of organizations change the level of activity of drones?
After the threat level is measured at each site, security managers can make a data-driven decision on whether they need to implement localizing technology or more sensors to gain situational awareness.
Additional sensors can help localize pilots, supporting law enforcement in apprehending unlawful drone pilots and any resulting investigations or prosecution.
Drone incursions at nuclear facilities are a preventable problem. Drones will continue to arrive unannounced and to stay ahead of the drone threat, nuclear security teams must take action to extend their security systems to the airspace.