Critics question tighter nuclear plant security

Tom Ford

When Harvey Wasserman, a senior adviser for Greenpeace, got news of the Sept. 11 attacks, he responded first with sympathy for the victims but then with relief.

“We missed the most apocalyptic event you can imagine,” he said.

The Indian Point nuclear power plants operate 40 miles north of where the World Trade Center towers stood. Wasserman said he was grateful the plant wasn’t targeted, but “totally fearful” it, or another, could be attacked, which could result in a catastrophic release of radioactivity.

Nuclear power plants nationwide have increased security measures by adding local law enforcement and following Nuclear Regulatory Commision recommendations.

While the industry says plants are safe, members of nuclear watchdog groups and a U.S. congressman have said otherwise. Their suggested remedies range from deploying National Guard troops at every plant in the country to shutting down all 103 reactors in the United States.

Wasserman said terrorists could trigger radioactive releases by targeting reactors. He said that could be done by crashing a plane into them, or simply by destroying cooling and control systems, vital nuclear reactors and on-site fuel waste.

If a meltdown happened, Wasserman said, resulting radiation clouds could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths.

While the NRC has said containment structures protecting reactors and fuel waste haven’t been tested to withstand a commercial jetliner crash, it says those structures are among the most hardened in the country and are designed to withstand events such as earthquakes and hurricanes.

Further, the NRC said all plants are required to maintain security programs, including armed civilian guards, physical barriers and alarm systems.

On Sept. 11, for the first time since the Gulf War, the NRC recommended all plants be on their highest security alert. The NRC said all plants have complied.

In Minnesota, the Nuclear Management Company has closed the Monticello and Prairie Island plants to the public and has increased patrols and car searches. Since late October local police have been involved in the patrols.

Several states, including New York, have deployed National Guard troops to guard plants.

But Steve Dowling, research director of the Nuclear Control Institute, said those measures are not enough.

“Security needs to be radically upgraded,” he said.

The NCI, he said, has called on governors in all 41 states with power plants to deploy National Guard troops and install anti-aircraft weapons on site. He said 13 states have deployed troops; Minnesota has not.

He said current security testing procedures, regulated by the NRC, have shown poor results and do not fully address new threats.

For example, the NRC’s Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation program, which tests a plant’s ability to defend against a group of attackers intent on sabotage, has indicated a nearly 50 percent failure rate in preventing those security breaches, he said.

Programs such as OSRE, organized according to a “design-basis threat,” are designed to test against a small group of attackers with limited weaponry who aren’t on a suicide mission.

Israel Klein, spokesman for Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said tests are not difficult.

“The plants have been failing an elementary school exam when they should be taking college-level exams,” he said.

Markey is pushing to make the tests reflect a situation involving more sophisticated and dedicated terrorists.

He was successful in getting an amendment, requiring the NRC to re-examine its security tests, through the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which he is a member.

Pam Alloway, public affairs officer for NRC’s Midwest office, said the OSRE, one of several routine exercises inspecting plant security, is not a pass or fail program. Instead, it is designed to expose vulnerabilities, which she said could then be corrected.

She said since Sept. 11 the committee has been reviewing all its security requirements.

“The entire agency is mobilized to work on this review,” she said. “We’re looking at everything.”

Maureen Brown, NMC spokeswoman, said prior to Sept. 11 the nuclear power industry, more than any other, was prepared for terrorism.

Although plants cannot be designed to withstand every attack method, she said they remain among the most secure industrial facilities in the world.

The NRC has not yet documented a “credible” threat to any U.S. plants.

For that reason, Minnesota has not deployed its National Guard troops for plant security.

“There’s nothing to say plants in Minnesota are in threatening situations,” said Kevin Smith, Public Safety Department spokesman.

Smith said the plants and local police have implemented extra security measures, and the state has had daily discussions with the FBI about possible threats. While deploying the Guard is an option, he said, right now it’s unnecessary.

But Dowling said that sentiment is “ludicrous.”

“No one got warning about the World Trade Center attacks,” he said. “It’s ridiculous to say a threat takes the form of an actual threat.”

He said security measures should be enacted as a necessary precaution.

Members of several nuclear watchdog organizations agree and are calling for more drastic precautions.

“Anything short of turning plants into Fort Knox leaves them
vulnerable,” said Paul Gunter,
director of the Reactor Watchdog Project with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

He said the most relevant protection is to shut down all plants.

“The first step is to stop generating more and more radioactive material,” he said.

Yet nationwide plant shutdowns would not eliminate threats due to the presence of radioactive waste.

The material, much of which remains on site, must be guarded permanently, he said.

Melanie White, Nuclear Energy Institute spokeswoman, said shutting down plants is an option but would be a disservice to citizens.

Nuclear power, which generates about 20 percent of U.S. electricity, is vital to national energy policies, she said.

The Sept. 11 attacks, she said, make it imperative to rely on energy sources such as nuclear power.

George Crocker, executive
director of the North American Water Office, said nuclear energy is inherently unsafe, and he said the Price-Anderson Act is a clear indicator.

Enacted in 1957, it caps the liability of companies that own plants in the event of any accident. The government would pick up anything beyond about $9.5 billion.

“Without the Price-Anderson Act, there would be no nuclear industry,” Crocker said.

Insurance companies have never been willing to insure plants, he said, because the risk is too great. But plants are able to generate investment capital because they’re shielded from liability.

Gunter said accidents, if they occur, are likely to exceed the cap and would result in about $600 billion in health care and insurance costs, for which victims and taxpayers would pay.

Tom Ford welcomes comment at [email protected]