CLINTON — Lamar Brown and other members of the security force train in Kevlar jackets with AR-15 semiautomatic carbines. Blank rounds trigger a laser module on the end of the barrel that in turn triggers sensors in the vests of the opposing force, telling them when they’ve been shot.
A series of short beeps indicates a near miss (“So you know ‘I’m getting shot at!’ ” Brown said). A single high-pitched beep means a confirmed hit.
If the existence of the Clinton Power Station proves we live in a post-nuclear age, its security force proves we live in a post-9/11 age. Brown and other members of the security force run through exercises that prepare them for the kind of nightmare scenario you’d expect in a video game or action movie: an assault on a nuclear reactor by an armed, hostile force.
Exelon Corp. owns the sky-blue dome on the southern shore of Lake Clinton where, since 1987, the nuclear reactor inside has been boiling water to produce electricity.
Last year, the facility generated 8.6 million megawatt hours of power. Illinois gets 48 percent of its power from nuclear reactors, more than coal, which generates 43 percent, according to a July report by the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Visitors at a recent Exelon open house toured the training room, saw a control room simulator that re-creates a power blackout and looked at protective gear workers would wear in a high-radiation area. At another table, security workers let all comers feel the weight of a training rifle. Brown assured visitors it is as heavy as the real thing.
The guards’ armor, gas masks, night vision optics and red-dot rifle scopes are all military grade.
Security has changed since 9/11, said general manager Jeff Cunningham, who used to be the plant’s head of security. Guard towers have been built, newer forms of training and more advanced equipment have been brought to bear to train and arm security personnel, he said.
“The defensive strategy has changed quite a bit,” Cunningham said. “There’s a lot of defensive depth, a lot of different barriers, not relying on one barrier but sometimes up to 10 barriers.”
Despite the relatively compact and unobtrusive nature of a nuclear reactor — enough energy to power a million homes with no billowing smokestacks or loud noises — the public’s concern at the open house seemed to be the potential threat of radiation.
Neil Hightower, the plant’s radiological engineering manager, said the danger is minimal and workers rarely are in situations that could potentially expose them to dangerous levels.
Around his neck, and the neck of everybody who reports to work at Clinton Power Station, is a radiation detector. Once every three months, monitors check how much radiation the wearer has been exposed to.
The reality is, Hightower said, most workers are rarely in danger of high levels of radiation.
“It’s very safe,” Hightower said. “I’ve been in it 30 years, and hopefully, I’ll be in another 30 years.”