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Great Lakes Article:

Security tightened at nuclear plants

U.S. bars small planes overhead; deputies at Point Beach, Kewaunee

Article courtesy of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Oct. 30, 2001

The federal government Tuesday banned small aircraft from flying over nuclear power plants for one week, and sheriff's deputies started patrolling Wisconsin's two atomic plants, after a warning that terrorists could strike America soon.

A senior military commander also said the Pentagon is weighing the use of Patriot missile batteries and other air-defense weapons as a last-ditch protection against terrorist attacks on nuclear plants and other key facilities.

Until Nov. 7, private aircraft are forbidden from flying within 10 nautical miles of 87 nuclear plants and laboratories - including Wisconsin's Point Beach and Kewaunee power plants - unless the planes are more than 18,000 feet up, the Federal Aviation Administration ruled.

The ban doesn't affect airliners, which generally fly higher, and air traffic controllers can exempt law enforcement and medical flights, the FAA said.

At the same time, the management of the Point Beach and Kewaunee plants announced that it had called in local law enforcement officers to bolster security at those plants and four others that it runs in the Midwest.

And Army Gen. William Kernan, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., told reporters that defense officials are looking at air defense systems to protect "nuclear power plants and some of the critical infrastructure that supports national and state governments."

Kernan, who is responsible for the land and maritime defense of the continental United States, declined to say whether air defense batteries already had been deployed around the country.

The FAA didn't say why the flight restrictions would last just one week. A spokesman at FAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

However, both the flight ban and the security boost followed warnings Monday from Attorney General John Ashcroft and the FBI that terrorists could attack the United States as early as this week, in retaliation for American attacks on terrorist strongholds in Afghanistan. Tom Ridge, director of homeland security, reiterated that warning Tuesday.

The federal officials said the warnings were based on "credible" threats but did not say those threats were aimed at nuclear power plants or any other specific targets. A similar message came from a spokeswoman for Nuclear Management Co., which runs the Point Beach plant in Manitowoc County and the Kewaunee plant in Kewaunee County.

"We're not aware of any specific or credible threat against nuclear plants," company spokeswoman Maureen Brown said. "These steps were taken as a precaution."

The local law enforcement officers protecting the plants are supplementing Nuclear Management's own force of armed guards, Brown said.

Two Kewaunee County sheriff's deputies are now assigned to the Kewaunee plant at all times, a Kewaunee County dispatcher said. The Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department is also working with the Point Beach plant's security staff, sheriff's Lt. John Seim said, but he declined to elaborate.

Since terrorists forced airliners to crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, nuclear power plants and small aircraft have been subject to new security restrictions.

Nuclear Management has erected barriers around the Kewaunee and Point Beach plants, started searching employees and eliminated guided tours, Brown said. This month, the Coast Guard also added patrols in Lake Michigan near the two plants.

Although all flights were grounded after the terrorist attacks, restrictions on small aircraft have lasted long after airliners have returned to the skies.

The FAA only recently lifted a ban on small aircraft that fly by sight, rather than by instruments, in the air over 27 major cities. But flights over New York City, Washington and Boston remain restricted, including flights over World Series games at Yankee Stadium. Blimps, news helicopters and banner-towing planes still can't fly over 30 major cities.

Those restrictions have annoyed private pilots. The Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association have lobbied heavily to ease the rules, arguing that small planes are not a threat to national security.

But even before Tuesday's order, the FAA was sensitive about planes' flying too close to nuclear power plants.

Last week, the St. Petersburg Times reported, air traffic controllers alerted the Air Force that a small plane was off course and approaching a nuclear power plant in tiny Crystal River, Fla., on the Gulf of Mexico coast. Within minutes, fighter jets intercepted the plane and ordered the pilot to land.

But when Citrus County sheriff's deputies boarded the plane, they didn't find any terrorists or bombs - just two men and 65 pounds of marijuana. The pilot and passenger were arrested and charged with drug trafficking.

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