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Homeland Security on the Range

In the woods with the gang that's learning to shoot straight.

Which brings me back to the Leyden rifle range, whose transformation reflects another mass illusion about security in our time. As it happens, this obscure patch of ground is situated near a bona fide high-risk installation, Entergy’s Vermont Yankee, a nuclear power plant seven miles away in Vernon, Vermont. It was the plant’s security contractor, Wackenhut, that decided in early 2002 that the modest, totally unsecured Leyden Rifle Club was the ideal setting for its thick-necked men to improve their skills at picking off terrorists who might come calling at the plant’s gates.

Entergy and Wackenhut are loath to discuss their deal with the Rifle Club, as is the club, whose interest appears to be a timeless matter of self-enrichment. The concrete platforms Wackenhut sunk into the earth, the wooden canopies it erected so shooting can take place in every season, the county access road it paid to improve, all done in such haste to safeguard the homeland that permits or environmental soundings were never acquired, have brought more club members, more customers, more cash, more lead burrowing into ground and trees and water. Neighbors of the range have challenged the change of use in court and at various public boards, but that’s another story.

It seems prudent to defend nuclear power plants. Certainly Wackenhut, which provides security for 31 of America’s 65 nuclear sites, could learn to shoot straight. Last December, a worker heading home from a reactor in Illinois was hit in the leg by a bullet fired by Wackenhut guards training nearby. But on a 1 to 10 scale of logical safety measures, where 10 is the phased shutdown of nuclear plants, improved marksmanship is about a 11/2, just ahead of locks on the gates. Yet that has been the main concern of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in establishing post-9/11 safety standards. Private guards who formerly had to be able to defend a plant against three attackers on land are now required to handle five.

Any child sufficiently aware of the world as it is knows that fiends with an interest in efficient destruction would more likely send a small bomb-laden plane crashing into the spent-fuel cooling pools, where an explosion would create an immense radioactive cloud. In 22 nuclear facilities, from Vermont Yankee to WNP-2 in Richland, Washington, these irradiated pools are elevated high off the ground, covered only by a lightweight roof and vulnerable from above, below, beside. The NRC makes no provision for air attack, because, it says, air security is the job of airlines and other government agencies. So the best we can hope for is good aim by mercenaries, “Hessians,” as a retired English teacher and musician in Guilford calls them. This year the NRC is conducting “force-on-force tests” across the country to determine whether the Hessians can indeed take out a five-person commando unit; Wackenhut has been hired to play the commandos.

Meanwhile, in Guilford everyone’s home features a little box that pings to warn of fierce weather and, in the event, nuclear catastrophe. With money from Homeland Security, a southern Vermont emergency planning committee launched a “1, 2, Know What to Do” website urging people to develop crisis plans and, at a siren’s blare, to turn on their radios. The kids’ section features the Know What to Do Kangaroo and his sidekick, Joey, along with “Games & Stuff” to test children’s hazard emergency IQ. If Vermont Yankee blows up or melts down while the kids are in school, they are to await buses that will take them to shelters. A good friend here who drives a school bus and carries a beeper expressly for receiving hazard alerts tells me drivers joke that in a true emergency, when signaled that the fallout cloud is coming, they’re likely to hightail it themselves out of the wind’s path.

Down the dirt road from where the bus driver lives, Eleanor Adams, who used to raise sheep and now, at 89, confines herself to producing an organic fertilizer she’s named Cosmic Dust, has been vocal about how the shooting disturbs the patterns of animals, but she takes a droll view of the regimen of preparedness as officially conceived. “I wouldn’t get on the school bus,” she says. “What you want to look for is a bike path or a hiking trail. If you know geography and geology, if you know where hot springs are, go there. It’s a good place to build a cave. If you know a few practical things, like where nonpolluted water is, that’s what you need to know. I think you might want to know how to build a Boy Scout shelter.” Security, she observes, simply comes down to “intelligent design,” and that appears to be in short supply.

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