A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Nuclear Power Plant

On April 9, 2008, 450 of the 500 employees at the Point Beach nuclear power plant – owned by FPL Energy of Florida and located in Two Rivers, Michigan – were evacuated because a store clerk misinterpreted a sound bite.

It started like this: a 23-year-old man walked into a local convenience store on the morning of April 8 to ask directions to the nuclear plant. It was his first day on the job and the day had already started badly. He was lost, running late, and trying to make a good first impression. In his nervousness, he probably started to babble. I know I do when I’m stressed.

He got his directions and added, “I hope I won’t blow up the place. They don’t allow me to push any buttons, anyway.”

A clerk overheard him and went into panic mode. The clerk is a 10-year veteran of the Kwik Trip, and likely knows everyone in the area by face, if not by name. A stranger’s face coupled with trigger words like “blow up” pushed her into that state of acute paranoia which has overtaken many Americans since 9/11. She called the Two Rivers police.

The Two Rivers police called in the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI. Surveillance tapes from the convenience store led to the stranger’s car, a Milwaukee rental, parked in the employee lot at the nuclear power plant. The car was searched, but nothing was found that would indicate terrorism.

The clerk’s statement was considered a “credible threat”, according to plant spokesperson Sara Cassidy. An “Unusual Event” was declared at 8:16 a.m., and the plant evacuated. The “Unusual Event” status is the least critical of four radiological emergency classifications established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to deal with, and inform the public about, problems occurring at a nuclear power plant. The next category, in terms of criticality, is an “Alert,” followed by a “Site Area Emergency,” and finally, a “General Emergency,” which is when things get really hairy.

Non-essential plant employees were removed to the Point Beach Energy Center nearby while the three agencies unraveled the plot. The new employee, a former resident of Hull, Mass., was interviewed by the FBI and clarified the misrepresented statement. The event status was lifted at 12:26 p.m.

At this time, no charges are being pursued against any of the players in this bizarre drama, according to the Two Rivers police, who agree with plant representatives that the clerk acted in a responsible manner. According to Cassidy, the new contract employee did not have a site badge and had no access to the plant’s secure area in any case.

“This has never happened before,” said Lauretta Krcma-Olson, energy center supervisor, speaking to the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, a local newspaper.

I say, “Welcome to 21st Century America.” We are as vulnerable as our weakest link, and the size and diversity of this country leads to weak links in every area, every demographic, and every vital facility.

We can’t protect everything, or everyone, everywhere. This is why it is essential to end our warmongering overseas. We are no safer now than we were on September 10, 2001, and it behooves us to remember that the 12-year-old boy carrying a gun in Iraq or Afghanistan is a future terrorist, physically armed by our military/industrial complex (the U.S. is the world’s leading arms exporter), and emotionally armed by the murder of his family at the hands of strangers he considers infidels.

This was a non-event. The next one, aimed at the heartland of America and bearing nuclear or biological signatures, may be real. I don’t side with the Neocons, who see America as the sole arbiter of political and social justice worldwide; our own record isn’t good enough to support that pretension.

On the other hand, being a pacifist is not the same as being passive. We have a right to defend our borders. We do not have a right to extend them – or our philosophy and way of life – wherever we deem suitable, at the expense of civilian populations. We can not call ourselves a Christian nation when our hands are red with the blood of innocents.
(This post originally appeared in The Panelist at: http://thepanelist.com/Opinions/Opinions/_20080414926/

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