Asleep on the Job?

Oct. 12, 2005 — -- "That's the reactor building," my partner Dana Hughes said as we drove onto Pennsylvania State University's campus. She looked down at the map. She looked up at the sign on the road. She looked down at the map again. She whispered, "This is it."

It was about 11:15 a.m. and we had been driving for four hours. During the drive we went over our plan for the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor: Day One would be surveillance; Day Two would be a scheduled tour of the 1-megawatt reactor with low-enriched uranium.

"Let's drive up there," Dana said. I drove to the building.

As we got closer to the gate, the image of a guard with a pistol holstered to his waist popped in my mind. What if he sees us? Or worse -- what if he questions us?

But once we were at the gate, my fears disappeared. He was slouched in a lawn chair that sat midway between his booth and the gate. His head rested on his right shoulder and he wore dark sunglasses.

He appeared to be asleep. I pulled into a nearby parking lot, made a quick U-turn and looked at him again. He did not move.

We parked in a residence hall parking lot across the street from the reactor and filmed the guard for the rest of the day. He was awake but never noticed us.

About 3 p.m., the guard folded his lawn chair, popped the trunk of a nearby car and placed the chair inside. By nightfall, the booth was empty.

On Day Two we arrived for a tour that we had scheduled five days in advance. What the university later told ABC is a "gate attendant," not a guard, spotted us as we approached. I sized him up. He was about 6 feet tall, thin and in his mid- to late 60s. He tapped a lever in the booth and the gate rolled open for us.

"Hey, girls," he said, smiling. We walked in. The gate rolled shut behind us.

"I need to see your student IDs," he said. We showed him the IDs and he led us inside.

About That Guard …

A nuclear engineering student gave us the tour. He lectured for an hour on nuclear fission and showed us the reactor pool and control room.

Surprisingly, we got a snapshot of a fuel rod. According to rules on the reactor's Web site, cameras are not welcome on tours. Our guide explained that the rule prevents would-be troublemakers from calculating dimensions of the reactor room and components. Nevertheless, he took a picture of me holding a spent fuel rod and e-mailed the photo to us the following week. Finally, Dana asked our guide why the reactor needed a guard. He said that the guard and the 7-foot gate were added after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Is he armed?" Dana asked.

"I'm not supposed to tell you that," the guide said. His cheeks turned red.

"But no," he said, grinning through his flushed cheeks. "He's not armed."

Tamika Thompson is a Carnegie Fellow at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.

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