September 11 Attacks continue to push TVA security upgrades

photo A security guard armed with a rifle checks the identification of a motorist entering TVA's Sequoyah Nuclear Plant in September 2001.

In the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, TVA has spent more than $100 million to beef up security at its three nuclear plants.

It has spent millions more to protect its 29 hydroelectric dams, 11 coal plants, four gas plants, its power grid system with 17,000 miles of transmission lines and offices in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Muscle Shoals, Ala.

"Since that time, we've continued to make changes," said David Jolley, vice president of TVA police and physical security. "If you think about it, there are several ways we can get attacked. There's physical attacks; there's insider [grid or safety system] attacks; there's cyber attacks."

Even on the day of the attacks, TVA activated emergency operations centers and beefed up security gates, he said, but soon it became clear that was just the beginning of changes that would become constant and evolving.

Tennessee Valley Authority security must include not only its power-generating plants in seven states, but also its 20 other dams and 14 locks on reservoirs along and near the 652-mile Tennessee River.

TVA spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said TVA could not tally exactly how much has been spent for the nation's largest federally owned utility to reach and maintain a heightened state of security because the expense came out of the budgets for each plant and facility site. She said the changes are not separated as 9/11 security costs.

But TVA, in the decade since the attacks, has announced $30 million in physical barrier changes on the perimeters and to improve security at its three nuclear plants -- Sequoyah just north of Chattanooga; Watts Bar near Spring City, Tenn.; and Browns Ferry in Alabama. The utility also increased the number of nuclear plant security personnel by 60 percent, said Mark Findlay, TVA general manager for nuclear security.

In 2009, TVA reported it was paying the private Pinkerton Government Services $159 million for a six-year government contract -- or $26.5 million a year -- for security at Sequoyah, Watts Bar and Browns Ferry. TVA terminated the contract "to save money," TVA spokesmen said at the time, and brought nearly 500 security officers to the utility's payroll.

In late August, Findlay touted that change as one of the ways TVA achieved better control of "insider" security and worker background checks, something that had been questioned for years.

Over the years, the security at nuclear plants has evolved "to a very sophisticated biometrics system that requires workers to not only have a valid badge, but also a valid handprint that is read by a computer," Findlay said.

Despite Osama bin Laden no longer being around, Jolley said there are "plenty of his associates around out there in the world, and they are very imaginative, very creative and very determined."

"There has been at times some interest in TVA from adversaries, I can't really name the specific group. We know the utility industry as a whole is a target of interest, and very possibly TVA," Jolley said.

Connect with the Times Free Press on Facebook