Intern Helps Protect Texas Nuclear Energy Supply

SHSU Senior Steven Fleuriet is a nuclear security intern with STP Nuclear Operating Company.

Senior Steven Fleuriet of Sam Houston State University spent his summer vacation supporting security at a nuclear power plant in south Texas.

"Nuclear security is a big deal," said Fleuriet, a criminal justice major. "Security in the nuclear industry is unlike anything else I looked at in the private sector. The standards are extremely high in this industry, and I am very grateful to have this opportunity and intend to learn as much as possible.”

Fleuriet did an internship with STP Nuclear Operating Company (STP), one of the nation’s newest and largest nuclear power facilities. The state-of-the-art facility produces 2,700 megawatts of carbon free energy, enough to power two million Texas homes. As a nuclear security intern, his job was to support the Plant Protection Department whose overriding mission is to prevent radiological sabotage, the theft of radiological materials, and protect the public.

Fleuriet worked alongside two alumni from SHSU College of Criminal Justice at STP Security -- Paula Mitchell (’93) and Michael Coates (’06, ’08).

"It’s a heavily guarded and regulated industry with oversight from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and is also part of our nation’s critical infrastructure," said Coates, Senior Security Coordinator for the Wadsworth, TX company, located 80 miles south of Houston. "Securing our nation’s nuclear plants is an awesome responsibility that requires tireless dedication and focus."

There are 13,000 nuclear security officers across the country. Even though they are private security, these specialized officers have been authorized by Congress to use deadly force under certain circumstances. In 2005, the Texas Legislature granted police powers to nuclear security officers at their facilities, which means they can detain and arrest individuals displaying malicious intent or violating the law.

Nuclear power facilities became a key part of our nation’s energy strategy about 30 years ago, and the industry is undergoing a renaissance. Nuclear energy accounts for approximately 20 percent of the nation’s energy production. But while the industry is growing, the nuclear workforce is aging. About 40 percent of the nuclear workforce is expected to retire within the next few years, increasing the demand for new employees in this industry.

In addition, with recent accidents and threats of terrorism, the petrochemical industry may become regulated over the next 20 years, leading to more job opportunities among private security who can work within government regulation, said Coates, who began his career as an intern while pursuing his Master’s degree in Security Studies at SHSU.

At the facility, plant protection covers three major functions: security, access authorization and emergency response.

Security operations are heavily regulated by the NRC, which mandates how plants are protected, operational fundamentals, threat analysis and response. The department uses "robust security and modern technology" to protect plants, Coates said.

Because of the stringent security and regulation of nuclear power facilities, access to the site is highly restricted. Employees must undergo an extensive background check, which includes fingerprinting, personal history, credit checks, criminal history, psychological evaluation, hand geometry imaging and drug and alcohol screening. These checks are performed by Access Authorization. There are approximately 1,200 employees at the plant, so investigations are going on year round, Coates said.

During his internship, Fleuriet worked in Plant Protection Support, where he investigated change to security procedures, assisted in post event analysis/investigation and reviewed the company’s compliance with NRC regulations/guidelines. He also participated in emergency response drills.

"I knew almost nothing about nuclear energy production prior to this internship," Fleuriet said. "However, in a very short time, I have learned an enormous amount about nuclear energy and the inner workings of a power plant."

Fleuriet credits skills learned in his Research Methods class in helping him to create effective interviews and to use techniques to get the most out of responses. He also said that writing enhanced courses came in handy in compiling reports; and Texas law and police strategies courses also have been useful in plant practice. He plans to take additional courses – White Collar Crime and Global Terrorism – to better hone his skills.

"Everyone works on the same team here," said Fleuriet. "People look out for one another and make it a group effort to ensure safety is never overlooked. In many jobs, minor mistakes in the workplace may not be significant. However, if you are working at a nuclear power plant and mess up, the consequences can be devastating. I have worked alongside and encountered dozens of employees at STP, and everyone is very eager to assist and teach me everything they know. It took very little time to become adjusted to my new work environment."

Another aspect of the job is emergency response. While nuclear power plants are safe with safety redundancies built in, the NRC requires detailed emergency plans, which are frequently drilled with plant employees as well as emergency personnel from surrounding communities. The drills help to spot areas for improvement and to identify best practices to hone emergency preparedness. Nuclear safety and the protection of the public is STP’s number one priority, Coates said.

In addition to working at the plant, security personnel coordinate with federal and local law enforcement, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and local and county law enforcement from the surrounding area. The drills include all entities so that everyone is familiar with operations and personnel.

Like police departments, nuclear security officers have similar goals of protecting the public and preventing theft of materials. But as a private company, the nuclear industry must employ sound business practices.

In addition to the nuclear and petrochemical industries, there are a growing number of jobs in private security, including international energy production, maritime transportation, asset protection, open source intelligence analysis and loss prevention. In addition, the government is outsourcing some of its security operations. Many diplomats are not protected by government forces, but rather by private security, Coates said.

Internships are a good way to explore private security and often interns are hired by the companies. STP solicits interns from colleges throughout Texas. Interns bring a fresh eye to a business and help in community relations in spreading the word that nuclear power plants are safe, clean energy, Coates said.

"You can look at the same picture a hundred times and not see something; an outside perspective or point of view is always helpful to any organization." Coates said. "We also like the talent. Sam Houston State University provides valuable interns and employees to our team."

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