US Dept. of Energy devises security system to thwart rampant copper thefts

US DOE and Oak Ridge National Laboratory use anti-cut, anti-climb fence, intrusion detection cable, cameras for anti-copper theft system

DOE anti copper theft system
The US Department of Energy and its Oak Ridge National Laboratory have built a security system that is aimed at thwarting at least some of the copper thefts that plague utilities and other large facilities.

Specifically, "ORNL, DOE, the utility and several subcontractors installed a comprehensive perimeter security system consisting of energy efficient lighting, surveillance cameras that operate in a high voltage environment and an anti-cut, anti-climb fence system with integral intrusion detection cable. The complete system protects a perimeter area of 3600 linear feet."

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"This security system will deter future vandalism attempts, allow security officers to conduct surveillance remotely and will automatically alert security officers of an attempt to breach the perimeter so the officers can enact a proper response," said project manager Brigham Thomas of ORNL's Global Nuclear Security Technology Division in a release.   The security system installation, calibration and performance testing were completed in early 2011. Since the implementation, the substation has not reported any security issues.

ORNL said the development of the anti-theft system came in response to a 2009 attempted theft of copper cable at a one of the DOE's Power Marketing Administration substations which sparked an explosion and fire that tripped three transmission lines offline. Although the utility recovered by rerouting the substation's power, other power providers have experienced blackouts and loss of service from similar copper theft attempts.  The 2009 incident resulted in more than $1 million in damages, ORNL stated.

Copper thefts continue to rise as the metal's value remains high.  A press release from Freemont Insurance this week noted there is a direct correlation between the number of thefts and the current selling price of copper. Recently copper traded between $4.50 and $5.00 per pound. This is up almost 60% since 2007.

For about 30 minutes of work, often at night, criminals can pocket about $100 by selling the metal to recyclers, if they get a large enough unit, Freemont stated.

The FBI has said in the past that the rising theft of the metal is threatening the critical infrastructure by targeting electrical substations, cellular towers, telephone land lines, railroads, water wells, construction sites, and vacant homes for lucrative profits.  Copper thefts have increased dramatically since 2006; and they continue to disrupt the flow of electricity, telecommunications, transportation, water supply, heating, and security and emergency services, and present a risk to public safety and national security, the FBI stated.

The FBI says industry and local officials are taking countermeasures to help address the scrapper problem, but apparently much more needs to be done. For example, while a variety of physical and technological security measures have been taken there are limited resources available to enforce these laws, and a very small percentage of perpetrators are arrested and convicted. Additionally, as copper thefts are typically addressed as misdemeanors, those individuals convicted pay relatively low fines and serve short prison terms.

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