Access Authorization Regulations Lead to Arrest

generic power plant site mapAn illegal immigrant from Mexico was recently arrested after using an invalid Arizona identification card to enter the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Power plant security officers reported the suspicious ID to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which promptly made an arrest.

The man, a contract worker, did not have access to the most secure areas of the plant. He was arrested on felony charges — criminal trespass on a commercial nuclear generating station.

The incident underscores the NRC’s access authorization regulations, which are designed to make sure only the most trustworthy and reliable individuals gain access to vital safety areas of a nuclear power plant.

As with many industries and facilities, contract companies are used for projects and basic maintenance such as concrete work. In the case of the Palo Verde plant, the individual was doing work just inside an area known as the owner-controlled area (OCA), which houses no vital safety areas, information or systems. The area requires a valid ID issued by a state or government, and a legitimate reason for entering the OCA, such as previously approved work.

The worker had no access to the most secure areas of the plant with what is called the “protected area.” This area is only accessible by badged personnel, who have undergone stringent screening and background checks, or by individuals being escorted by approved plant personnel.

The site can be thought of as a series of rings representing areas with varying degrees of security checks and measures. The reactor, turbine building, and other safety related equipment, for example, are housed in the highly secured and heavily guarded inner-most ring with access controls, intrusion detection and strategically placed observation towers.

It is the responsibility of the nuclear power plants licensed by the NRC to vet individuals and approve their access to the plant — including those working under contract through other companies. The NRC will be taking a look at the Arizona Public Service Company’s actions related to the arrest of the contract worker to make sure our regulations were followed. The good news is that the system worked to identify someone who didn’t belong and the appropriate law enforcement action was taken.

Lara Uselding
Region IV Public Affairs Officer

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

6 thoughts on “Access Authorization Regulations Lead to Arrest”

  1. getting on the site has no risk because all of the plant equipment is inside the protected area.

    thorough background checks are required to get into the protected area or vital area where there is operating equipment.

    in general, the worst you could do in the owner area is break into someone’s email or something like that (corporate or site facilities are usually in the OCA).

  2. Individuals requesting access to a commercial nuclear power plant regulated by the NRC are required to present a valid photo ID such as a driver’s license or passport issued by a state or by the government. NRC licensees currently use a number of methods to validate true identity of individuals requesting access to nuclear plants. In some instances this includes document scanning technology to authenticate the photo ID.

  3. According to a Fox News report on the incident, this individual was a worker doing remodeling work at an administrative building on the Palo Verde site. (My inference is that he had no particular intention of getting within the precincts of a nuclear site, and went there only because that was where the contractor he worked for happened to have a contract.) He has been CHARGED with being in the country illegally. This NRC blog post seems to have convicted him of that crime already, which is utterly inappropriate, and should be corrected. As an aside, the arrest was made by Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, who has built a political career on arresting Hispanics on charges of being in the U.S. illegally and then treating them cruelly, including creating the nation’s first female chain gang, keeping inmates in tents where temperatures rise to dangerous levels, and providing inadequate and often spoiled food. In 2008, Federal Judge Neil Wake found that Sheriff Arpaio’s treatment of prisoners violated Constitutional standards, through overcrowding, overheating, malnourishment, and deprivation of adequate medical and mental health care, and he ordered corrective action; in 2010, he found that his orders had not been followed. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Wade’s 2008 decision in the 2010 case of Graves v. Arpaio, in which it stated that prisoners were “often given food that is overripe, moldy, and generally inedible,” and kept in excessively hot conditions. The NRC blog speaks of “Protecting our nation.” That term is broad enough to include both keeping nuclear power plants safe from potential attackers and ensuring that the Constitution is adhered to — not least the principle that arrestees are presumed innocent until proven guilty. — Peter Crane, NRC Counsel for Special Projects (retired)

  4. I think this is a pretty isolated event. Nuclear facilities tend to be some of the most secure in our country.

  5. Maybe people don’t agree with this, but I think that everyone that trespasses in to a Nuclear Generating Station should take the consequences for it. You just can’t do that, only God knows what he would do in there if he would get his fingers on any instruments.

  6. Should all facilities operating under the NRC umbrella at a minimum be required to validate all incumbent identification documentation prior to entering a regulated site?

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