Security of reactors reexaminedgreenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread
Posted at 6:48 a.m. EST Sunday, October 28, 2001
Security of reactors reexamined
BY CURTIS MORGAN firstname.lastname@example.org
Security at Turkey Point has never been tighter.
Some of it is visible. Private guards armed with assault weapons patrol the gate to the sprawling nuclear power plant along Biscayne Bay in South Miami-Dade County.
Most isn't visible. Boaters once could chase fish to the mouth of the plant's channel. Now, motor too near and a state marine officer cruises over to politely suggest moving off. The advice carries added weight when he casually drops, ``There are three sniper rifles pointed at your heads.''
Since Sept. 11, the nation's 103 nuclear power plants have been on highest alert but despite significantly stepped-up defenses, in some ways they seem more vulnerable than ever.
The most disturbing concern is whether nuclear reactors, built to withstand the worst nature can offer in hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, can weather a jet strike. Other critical components might be crippled more easily, from storage casks holding used radioactive fuel to cooling water systems that protect reactors from melting down.
Watchdog groups and other critics, including some members of Congress, urge an overhaul of an industry they say has persistent security problems. Between 1991 and 1998, nearly half the sites tested failed to thwart assaults by mock terrorists -- despite advance notice.
``The Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to engage in a wholesale review of the security at nuclear power plants, considering not just the threat from ground forces, but also previously unevaluated threats,'' said U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has urged tougher security since the Gulf War.
The NRC and the nuclear power industry are doing just that, conducting what spokesman Victor Dricks called a ``top-to-bottom review.'' The federal agency has issued a half-dozen advisories and urged cooperation with military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
``Arrangements have been made with other agencies to protect plants by land, sea and air,'' Dricks said. ``I really can't get much more specific.''
Nuclear plants rank high on the at-risk list because of the potentially disastrous consequences of a successful assault. Deaths wouldn't come from a blast, but the release of high levels of radiation could, in severe cases, kill thousands.
Since the attacks, the NRC and industry have provided only vague information about security upgrades. The level of secrecy is so high that on Oct. 11 the NRC shut down its website, which included voluminous declassified details about plant equipment, operations and locations, right down to longitude and latitude. Though the site is back up now, most information is accessible only by request.
Response has varied widely from state to state. In New York and Massachusetts, governors ordered National Guard troops to patrol the plants. In New York, the U.S. Coast Guard reversed its decision to end 24-hour patrols around a plant on the Hudson River after a number of political leaders objected.
The Federal Aviation Administration, until dropping them recently, also restricted flights over some plants, including Florida Power & Light Co.'s St. Lucie facility where a student pilot strayed close enough two weeks ago to scramble fighters. Now, the FAA is ``strongly urging pilots not to circle or loiter over nuclear or electrical power plants, industrial complexes, dams, reservoirs and military installations.''
FPL spokeswoman Rachel Scott would say only that the utility was taking ``extensive measures'' to protect the public.
Do measures really go as far as snipers? Scott laughed, seemingly discounting that possibility, but said surveillance had been increased.
``Nuclear power plants have always been designed to protect against terrorist threats and we have always had a very stringent security program,'' she said. Unlike airport workers, for instance, nuclear plant employees all undergo criminal background checks.
Increased patrols and industry assurances haven't comforted critics. The NRC has documented a history of security shortcomings.
``We don't know any of the details about what is being done now, that's classified,'' said Tyson Slocum, research director for energy and environment programs for Public Citizen, the Ralph Nader-run group that has long campaigned against nuclear power as expensive and dangerous. ``We do know the security record of nuclear plants is abysmal.''
The main problem, said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union for Concerned Scientists, is that the NRC and industry have seriously underestimated terrorist threats. REACTOR SECURITY TEST Many vulnerable to `raid,' but none are in Florida
Current regulations, designed with Cold War espionage in mind, aim to thwart a single insider spy or small teams of infiltrators, armed with hand-held weapons and grenades, Lochbaum said. In the 1990s, after the first bombing attack on the World Trade Center, those rules were altered to include car and truck bombs.
But a large-scale assault always was considered the stuff of a Hollywood script.
In fact, the rules specifically exempt utilities from protecting against attacks ``by an enemy of the United States, whether a foreign government or person.'' There also are no set standards at the 66 U.S. sites housing nuclear reactors, Lochbaum said. The NRC allows some to have as few as five armed guards on duty, depending instead on locks, fences and other engineering safeguards.
When put to the test, security systems have failed nearly as often as they've succeeded. Under a program called Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation, which began in 1991, a team, comprised mainly of ex-military personnel, staged mock assaults on plants. By 1998, when the tests ended, 27 of 57 sites demonstrated what an NRC security specialist called ``significant protection weaknesses,'' even with months of notice and a list of potential scenarios.
Teams were able to breach gates, fences and locks and elude or overwhelm security in attacks that allowed access to systems that, if damaged, ``would have put the nuclear reactor in jeopardy with the potential for core damage and radiological release.''
Turkey Point and the state's other nuclear power plants -- FPL's St. Lucie and Florida Power's Crystal River, on the West Coast -- passed the drill.
The NRC would not release full reports but a 1997 letter called Turkey Point's security plan ``generally sound.'' It also noted ``items of concern'' similar to ones first detailed in 1994.
Lochbaum said he wasn't aware of details of Turkey Point's test but recalled that security lapses had contributed to the NRC's threat to shut down the plant in 1989.
``You could lift a manhole cover and crawl under the fence. It was things like that the NRC kept finding,'' Lochbaum said. ``The company would fix it but not six others like it.''
FPL spokeswoman Scott said the utility had ``seriously and directly'' corrected flaws. Lochbaum acknowledged that the NRC has since has given Turkey Point glowing reviews overall.
Lochbaum and other critics charge that the NRC contributed to lax attitudes by inconsistently enforcing the rules, never shutting down utilities for failures.
In fact, he said, the agency phased out mock raids after complaints of high expense and was just preparing to begin a pilot program of industry-designed drills which would make the utilities, in essence, self-policing. Under criticism from Markey and other members of Congress, the agency reinstated the tests and is now reviewing the entire security program. A QUESTION OF DESIGN A deliberate jet crash was not anticipated
More troubling, and more difficult to correct, are concerns about the actual structures. The industry has long insisted that plants were designed to resist airplane crashes. FPL, which is seeking to relicense Turkey Point, last year dismissed activists' concerns about converting the old Homestead Air Force Base into a new commercial airport, calling the odds of a crash astronomical.
But the NRC now acknowledges it isn't quite so sure about its calculations. While reactor vessels rank among the toughest structures in the world, with concrete walls ranging from two to six feet thick -- built to survive butt-end hits from telephone poles traveling 200 miles per hour -- the impact of a large jet aircraft laden with fuel and the resulting inferno were not in the design equations.
There are even more concerns about less fortified support structures, like the buildings that hold spent, but still very radioactive, fuel.
``The NRC did not specifically contemplate attacks by aircraft such as Boeing 757s or 767s, and nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes,'' the NRC said. REINFORCED WALLS Federal report suggests concern over blast
In 1989, the United States and Japan crashed a rocket-propelled F-4 fighter on a track into a prototype containment wall of reinforced concrete six feet thick. At 480 mph, the jet disappeared in a puff of dust, leaving a gouge in the wall just 2.4 inches deep.
But an earlier and largely overlooked study considered more than just the force of impact. In 1982, the Argonne National Laboratory issued a report suggesting that if enough vaporized fuel got into a double-walled containment vessel, it might generate a violent and damaging explosion.
``If only 1 percent of the fuel, say 500 pounds for an FB-111 fighter plane, is involved in such an event, the blast environment will be equivalent to the detonation of approximately 1,000 pounds of TNT,'' the study found.
The NRC and FPL say they still believe the buildings would likely stand up to a crash, and any potential releases would be contained by redundant safety and cooling systems. But NRC's Dricks said more study was needed.
``We would not rule out the possibility that an aircraft could cause structural damage that would cause the release of radiation.''
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), October 28, 2001
Since we have seen how much damage can be caused by CDC reactive rather than proactive protection measures with anthrax, It just goes to logical that they probably have NOT CONSIDERED WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF THESE TERRORISTS INFECTED THE ENTIRE STAFF OF A NUCLEAR PLANT OR PLANTS WITH SMALLPOX OR ANTHRAX. The only reason I even bother to mention it is that they were so dumb they didnt even consider power would come out of an envelope. I hope they have taken some BIO- SECURITY PRECAUTIONS with critical employees like nuke facility workers. I dont want to be one of the victims of a nuke plant accident should these idiots simply "never thought about that occurring." Maybe you could give these guys some of your limited smallpox and anthrax vaccine???
-- ainitfunny (firstname.lastname@example.org), October 29, 2001.
Since we have seen how much damage can be caused by CDC reactive rather than proactive protection measures with anthrax, It just goes to logical that they probably have NOT CONSIDERED WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF THESE TERRORISTS INFECTED THE ENTIRE STAFF OF A NUCLEAR PLANT OR PLANTS WITH SMALLPOX OR ANTHRAX. The only reason I even bother to mention it is that they were so dumb they didnt even consider powder would come out of an envelope. I hope they have taken some BIO- SECURITY PRECAUTIONS with critical employees like nuke facility workers. I dont want to be one of the victims of a nuke plant accident should these idiots simply "never thought about that occurring." Maybe you could give these guys some of your limited smallpox and anthrax vaccine???
-- ainitfunny (email@example.com), October 29, 2001.