The moonless night is still. Even the crickets are silent in the heavy darkness blanketing the freshly mown grass and thick stand of knotty pines. Except for the cluster of massive, concrete buildings encircled by a steel perimeter fence, the carefully maintained roads and the constant cloud of steam drifting overhead, these fields blend almost seamlessly into the rolling farmlands of rural Virginia. The night’s tranquility is short-lived though.
A team of highly-trained, paramilitary commandos, armed with sophisticated laser-equipped weapons and multiple mock explosives, is creeping slowly toward its target, executing a plan of attack long in the planning. The threat is real; the “terrorists” are not.
The Composite Adversary Force (CAF) is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) most potent weapon in the multilayered and largely secret security arsenal protecting U.S. nuclear power plants from radiological sabotage. This is their story.
The CAF of today is the culmination of more than two decades of Force-on-Force (FOF) covert inspections, carried out each year by the NRC as a way to evaluate and improve plant security. Originally, the mission belonged to active U.S. Special Forces—primarily Delta Force operators, Navy SEALS and Army Rangers. However, its constant deployment to hot spots around the world, and the need to develop tactics unique to nuclear security, prompted the NRC to create its own brand of special operations.
In 2004, the NRC and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) requested that Eric Wilson, a former Army Ranger and Special Forces veteran with extensive experience in nuclear security, including innovative barrier design and real-world protective strategies, create the nation’s first nuclear security commandos.
Dave Kline, director of nuclear security for the NEI, said the facilities are most secure.
“Nuclear plants are widely acknowledged to be the most secure and best-defended facilities among the nation’s critical infrastructure,” he says.
Along with CAF Program Manager Wilson, Kline oversees the protection of nuclear material and facilities from internal sabotage and external attacks.
On the inside, the comprehensive security systems include access-authorization controls that cover all permanent employees and temporary contract workers. Among them, there is an FBI criminal history review; psychological assessments; work, education and credit-history reviews; reviews of fitness for duty; and pre-access and random drug and alcohol tests. All personnel are also searched for firearms, explosives, incendiary devices, and any other material that could be used for industrial or radiological sabotage prior to entering the protected area of the plant.
With the rise of ISIS terrorists—who reportedly targeted a Belgian nuclear power plant in March—safeguarding the nation’s nuclear power supply has never been more critical for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the NRC and Homeland Security. They’ve poured billions into high-tech surveillance and anti-cyber warfare, while simultaneously increasing the number of security officers and the frequency and complexity of FOF inspections that test each plant’s “Design Basis Threat” or DBT.
INSIDE THE ATTACKS
DBT is a threat analysis compiled from intelligence from Homeland Security, the NRC and the Department of Energy, detailing the methods and tools terrorists might use to target nuclear energy plants and other critical infrastructure in the United States. The CAF works within the framework of the DBT to execute a mission that the plant’s security officers must defend against—either through physical protection systems or response strategies.
Each year, about one-third of the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants undergo an extensive security examination that lasts several weeks. The inspections culminate with tabletop exercises that probe for security holes, followed by consecutive nights of FOF assaults, which are pre-announced to avoid confusion with an actual attack. (It’s important to note that during these FOF inspections, there is a fully-armed security team on duty in addition to the shift being tested. At no time are any of the plants in a degraded security posture.)
Once launched, these scenarios are deadly serious as the CAF team attempts to gain access into the plant, “neutralize” security officers, and simulate the destruction of critical equipment and infrastructure.
“We don’t characterize [the results] as good or bad because the plants must adhere to our security regulations, period,” said NRC spokeswoman Holly Harrington. “If there are failures, which from time to time occur, they are fixed and the plants are told they have to meet these requirements.”
Michael Eitniear, a 30-year U.S. Army veteran, joined the National CAF in 2010 as senior director, Special Operations for G4S Secure Solutions, which manages the selection, training and deployment of the CAF. He oversees the grueling selection process, and the annual requalification of current CAF members, which takes place annually at The Range Complex-TRC, a 978-acre training facility and shooting range near Fort Bragg, N.C.
Candidates must pass an extensive national background check, be an armed nuclear-security officer actively serving at a U.S. nuclear power-generating station, be physically and mentally fit, and volunteer for the program for a period of two years. It’s a prestigious, highly sought-after position, with the added benefit of being seriously badass. After their two-year term, CAF members return to their respective sites with invaluable knowledge of how to enhance their plant’s physical security operations and defensive strategies.
“We have all types of individuals from very diverse backgrounds,” explains Eitniear.
He says 70 percent have had some sort of military background, 20 percent have served as a police officer, and the remaining 10 percent have no military or police background.
“We are not looking for the most fit MIT graduate,” he says. “We are looking for the right fit, physically and mentally, with the ability to make critical decisions under both physically and mentally demanding stress while possessing a ‘never-quit’ mind set.”
John Pyle, who served on the CAF team from 2004 to 2007 and became a director in 2012, agrees. It’s the “right guy,” not necessarily the “Captain America” candidate who’s selected, he says.
“They don’t have to be the fastest or strongest … It’s really about creating a cohesive unit.”
“They don’t have to be the fastest or strongest to be ranked high by the cadre,” Pyle says. “It’s really about creating a cohesive unit. We respect everyone’s experience, but we have our own standard operating procedures. If they can grasp that philosophy and work well within the team, they typically have a good chance of being selected for the CAF.”
As finely-tuned as the CAF team itself, its state-of-the-art laser guns require equally meticulous care. A specially trained Department of Energy crew travels with the CAF to make certain each weapon is performing to exact standards. In addition, they log the “hits” and “misses” each team member makes on the opposing force, which helps measure precisely which areas of the DBT were vulnerable and under what conditions.
“All weapons utilized during the drills are outfitted with SAAB laser systems and use specialized blank ammunition,” Eitniear says. “The hits are measured like any state-of-the art military laser tag-type system where the individual’s vest renders the weapon system of the neutralized individual disabled, and sends an audible voice injection so the controller can stop them from continuing in high-noise areas. “
“These laser systems are weapons-specific, and replicate maximum effective range and probability of neutralization. [During the assessment, training and requalification process], we validate our basic marksmanship skills, utilizing live weapon systems with a specifically designed set of marksmanship tables to measure the adversaries’ ability to effectively engage potential targets in all situations.”
These security experts believe it’s essential that Americans understand how important nuclear power is to the energy future of the United States, and the Herculean effort being made to safeguard nuclear fuel and the integrity of our nuclear power infrastructure.
“Nuclear energy is, by far, the largest clean-air energy source, generating 20 percent of the country’s electricity and nearly two-thirds of its carbon-free electricity,” Kline states. “I am proud to say American nuclear facilities are the best-protected critical assets and resources in the United States and will continue to be so.”
“I sleep well at night knowing that America is fully prepared to prevent radiological sabotage on her soil.”
Wilson shares Kline’s pride and is especially rewarded by how U.S. nuclear-security operations have continued to strengthen and improve year after year.
“Having been to a variety of critical infrastructure facilities, both domestically and internationally, I can comfortably say that these are the most hardened facilities I have seen,” he says.
Eitniear says that without the “highly trained security-force professionals and the hardened physical security at each facility,” there would not have been a consistent and reliable power grid in America.
“I sleep well at night knowing that America is fully prepared to prevent radiological sabotage on her soil,” he says.
The same features that protect the public and the environment from a radiation release also defend the reactor from outside interference. Typically, the reactor is protected by about four feet of steel-reinforced concrete with a thick steel liner; the reactor vessel is made of steel with additional physical barriers to prevent truck bombs and even withstand the impact of a Boeing 767.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the September-October 2016 print issue of World of Firepower Magazine.