Nuclear Facility Surveillance Problems Revealed

By Carlton Purvis, Published Oct 14, 2013, 12:00am EDT

Nuclear facilities clearly demand maximum security but how do they implement it and what challenges do they face? In this exclusive interview with a nuclear facility security official, IPVM reveals the key problems and fundamental approaches the facility takes in managing security and video surveillance, including the use of video analytics, the problem with wildlife and manned response

Primary Role of Surveillance at a Nuclear Facility

The primary roles of security cameras at a nuclear facility are perimeter protection and identifying potential threats from a distance. The cameras are watched live and supplemented by guards in fixed positions and on randomized roving patrols.

“We’re mainly looking for thieves or anyone who maybe be trying to unlawfully enter the facility. The main word they talk about in briefings is ‘sabotage’ -- anything that could cause harm to the plant and the people who live around the plant. That’s what we’re looking for whether it be like terrorism or someone trying to get SGI,” he said. SGI, stands for Safeguards Information and is information that relates to how reactors operate, spent fuel movements and protecting radioactive material. 

Hundreds of False Alerts Verified Manually 

Each time there is an alert, an officer has to visually inspect the area. It takes guards “two minutes tops” to respond to an alarm at any location of the facility. There are often several false alerts per hour. 

Because of its location, the facility has a wildlife problem. “That [perimeter] wire is so sensitive that even a spider web that blows into it or a spider walking on it will set off an alert. If something touches the wire, there is an alert.” he said. 

"If someone shows up at the fence line, they shouldn't be there, and have crossed some distance to get to these fences so they should be detained quickly," he said. “Even if we can see on the camera that it's a deer or just a tree branch or something, we still have to send a person out to check it. It’s a pain sometimes especially the days when it's going off like crazy.” There is an area of the fence line where spiders tend to gather that sets off a lot of alerts.

After a certain amount of motion alerts in a specified time period, they have to do a complete perimeter walkthrough and a function check of the entire system. He said usually if they can get rid of insects or cut back the foliage along the fence there are less animals and it goes a long way to reducing alerts.

Why do they put up with so many false alerts? "The answer to that, I don't know," he said. "They want the best of the best. They want to know if anything is coming in no matter how big or how small it is even if it does cause more problems." 

Detection Systems Overviewed 

Perimeter Wire

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Many of the cameras using people-detecting analytics and most of them are integrated with the facility’s perimeter detection system. A wire along the fence line that detects motion sends alerts back to the security control room.


With each alert there is an alarm and the view from the camera where motion was detected will automatically populate on the screen. In his time at the facility they were never any alerts for people. The cameras are not calibrated to be able to determine between motion from wind or an animal.

Microwave and Others 

The system also includes microwave detectors and volumetric. The latter are systems used to "detect disturbances of a volume of space," according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website.

There is also a water-based detection system that alerts guards the same way if someone or something crosses barriers in the water surrounding the plant. Although, “once a person gets that close it’s at their own risk,” he says. “There's like a black hole out there where we suck the water in to cool the reactors. It sucks in anything that gets too close. We get a lot of fish sucked in there, too, so if someone wants to swim that close if we don’t get to them first, then that will.”

Inclement Weather

In rainy or foggy conditions they rely less on camera views and deploy additional security officers throughout the site to supplement.


The site has its own corps of technicians that work solely on security system components. If a camera goes down, the problem is typically fixed within an hour. During that downtime a functional camera is moved to watch that camera’s sector and guards are moved supplement the area until the repair is completed.


Guards are rotated throughout posts during a shift so no one would watch the cameras for more than a few hours at a time.

Cameras Being Used

The plant uses a combination of fixed and PTZ cameras to watch the perimeter and the campus. However, he declined to provide details on the brands or the VMS. The majority of the cameras are fixed and some can be moved as needed. PTZs are located throughout the site and also at vehicle checkpoints to supplement guards on the ground and to inspect approaching vehicles.

Most rooms and corridors in the facility have fixed cameras. He said certain rooms where sensitive information is stored had and extra cameras.

He did not want to estimate the number of cameras at the site, but confirmed that it was more than 100. There are also fixed cameras in some machine rooms that are monitored primarily by the control room (not security). 

Oak Ridge Impact

Even though they have spent money on analytics, the need for nuclear facilities to spend even more on having guards verify every (and almost always false) alert is important. This practice may have become more important after a 2012 incident at Oak Ridge Facility (though our interviewee was not working at a facility at the time) . In that breach, a trio of elderly protestors cut through the fence and made their way into the complex, spray painting and hanging banners in the most secure areas of the campus, without ever triggering any alerts. Later however, a Department of Energy investigation found that guards had ignored the alerts, turned of the alarm and the camera overlooking that sector was inoperable. After after the incident, the security company was fired along with several officers.

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