A Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman declined to speculate on a motive for a Sunday morning shooting at the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant in Rhea County, but he said the suspect could be a male wearing a dark-colored sweatshirt with a hood.
Other than that, officials have little information on the suspect, who appears to have fled in a small boat, TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said Monday.
“It was difficult to provide any kind of description,” he said.
The unidentified man was spotted by a nuclear security officer at about 2 a.m. Sunday. The guard was on a routine patrol in a pickup truck on the perimeter of the 1,700-acre plant. As the officer came around a curve, the truck’s headlights illuminated a person on the shore of the Tennessee River, on the eastern side of the plant and near its southern boundary.
The guard stopped the vehicle and got out and asked the suspect what he was doing there, Hopson said.
The suspect responded, although Hopson doesn’t know what was said. Shortly after the conversation started, Hopson said, the suspect fired at the guard, shooting multiple rounds. At least one round reportedly hit the security officer’s vehicle.
The guard also fired back with multiple rounds, shooting a service handgun, Hopson said.
No one was injured.
Hopson declined to comment on the specific weapons carried by plant officers. He also would not comment on whether the gunfire exchange was captured on camera, saying he couldn’t reveal information on plant safeguards. But TVA will provide any information it has to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is leading the shooting investigation.
Hopson said it’s not clear how the suspect arrived on the site, but officials assume a boat was used.
Hopson also would not comment on the current status of the officer, except to say that the guard is cooperating with investigators. Assisting in the FBI investigation are the Rhea County Sheriff’s Office and TVA police and TVA nuclear security.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent security consultants to review the incident as well as TVA’s response during and after the exchange of gunfire. The NRC will also review whether federal guidelines were followed.
Hopson said the plant had been in a state of heightened security since the Boston Marathon bombings last week, and Watts Bar will remain under heightened security until the shooting investigation is complete.
TVA declared an “unusual event” Sunday morning after the shots were fired. It’s the lowest of the four NRC emergency classifications, and it ended at 12:30 p.m. Sunday after a TVA nuclear security team, the FBI, and others searched the plant and determined that there was no additional threat from the morning’s incident, Hopson said.
Hopson said this is the first time since Watts Bar began operating in 1996 that a nuclear security officer has exchanged gunfire with a suspect at the site.