Shots From Range Hit Near Md. Nuclear Plant

The Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, shown in a 2005 photo, has a firing range about a half-mile west of the reactors.
The Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, shown in a 2005 photo, has a firing range about a half-mile west of the reactors. (The Washington Post)
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By Aaron C. Davis and Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 28, 2009

A statewide SWAT team exercise at a firing range on the secured grounds of a nuclear power plant in Southern Maryland was halted this month after stray bullets shattered glass and struck a command center near the plant's reactors, officials said yesterday.

Reactor safety at the Calvert Cliffs plant in Lusby was never compromised, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Constellation Energy Group, which operates the facility. But Constellation closed the range, a popular training site for local law enforcement agencies, pending investigations by plant security and the Calvert County Sheriff's Office, which hosted the exercise.

At least five bullets escaped the firing range and traveled more than a half-mile before striking buildings and a vehicle near the reactors, according to the NRC, Constellation and the sheriff's office.

One struck the plant's "outage control center," which is used as a command area to orchestrate refueling efforts. Another hit an employee's sport-utility vehicle in the parking lot. Three others struck an office facility: Two of them hit the roof, and one shattered the outer pane of a first-floor window.

Employees were working in both buildings at the time, said Maureen Brown, a Constellation spokeswoman. The bullets did not penetrate either structure, she said.

"No one was injured. . . but it's our range and our responsibility, and we take this very seriously," Brown said. "We are investigating very thoroughly, and we're confident that no bullets left the plant property."

NRC spokeswoman Holly Harrington said the agency was briefed on the incident but was not conducting its own investigation. "This wasn't a [plant] safety or security issue, so we're really not involved," she said.

Firing ranges are common on the sprawling grounds of the nation's nuclear facilities, Harrington said. At Calvert Cliffs, the range is used about 200 days a year by plant security officers, who are tested regularly by commission auditors.

Brown said the range is used by county sheriff's deputies and is the site of a major annual SWAT exercise. "It's part of our community outreach to coordinate with local law enforcement," she said.

On May 14, SWAT officers from various police agencies were practicing on the plant's firing range, which is west of the reactors.

Officers from Calvert, Charles and Prince George's counties, Baltimore and the U.S. Marshals Service were working in teams of three practicing "room clearing" exercises, in which they try to quickly assess dangerous situations in small places and shoot while they are moving, said Lt. Steve Jones, commander of criminal investigations for the sheriff's office.

Typically, officers shoot southward, away from the plant, while on the firing range, but during the exercise, officers somehow fired eastward. The rounds cleared an almost 30-foot-high berm and flew about 3,400 feet before striking the two office buildings and the door of the parked SUV, Jones said.

He reiterated that the plant's reactors were never compromised. "Heck, you could take a gun and shoot right at the reactor from the outside" and still not cause significant damage, Jones said.

He called the incident a "training accident" and said a combination of "target placement [and] shooter error" probably was to blame. Investigators are conducting ballistics tests to determine which officer fired the stray shots.

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