Are Nuclear Reactors Secure? - Safe Energy Groups push for Security, NRC slow to respond (Washington Post) : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

To view the entire article, go to

Are Nuclear Plants Secure?

By Michael Grunwald and Peter Behr

On the day after the terrorist attacks on America, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission happened to file a legal brief about terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities. A group called Georgians Against Nuclear Energy (GANE) had lodged a complaint because no one had even analyzed the risk of a "malevolent act" at a proposed plutonium plant on the Savannah River.

No, it hadn't, the commission responded. "Federal agencies need only address reasonably foreseeable environmental impacts," the NRC brief stated. "GANE does not establish that terrorist acts . . . fall within the realm of 'reasonably foreseeable' events."

It was an untimely argument to make on Sept. 12, 2001. But that was the argument nuclear regulators had been making for decades. Now, federal and state officials are scrambling to ramp up security at nuclear power plants nationwide, banning planes from their airspace and dispatching National Guard troops and Coast Guard boats to their perimeters, hoping to prevent terrorists from creating a Chernobyl-style catastrophe in the United States. They concede that Sept. 11 has caused a sea change in their attitudes about "reasonably foreseeable" threats, and NRC Chairman Richard A. Meserve has ordered a "top-to-bottom" review of security rules.

"The events of September 11 were a wake-up call," Meserve said in an interview yesterday.

"Everything's on the table," added NRC spokesman Victor Dricks. "I'd like to tell you that everything's going to be okay, but I can't do that."

For critics of the nuclear industry and its regulators, the first multibillion-dollar question is whether an era of complacency is truly over. The second is how the vulnerabilities of the nation's 103 operating nuclear plants -- and several defunct plants still saddled with potentially lethal stockpiles of nuclear waste -- can be reduced now and in the future. These questions are not purely academic: Investigators say Islamic militant Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, has encouraged followers to attack a nuclear power plant.

The NRC has acknowledged that U.S. nuclear plants were not designed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 767 jetliner. But the risks go much deeper than that.

Until now, the plants were never required to defend against attacks by air or water. They were tested solely on their ability to stop a land assault by a few mock intruders with automatic weapons, explosives and perhaps a sport-utility vehicle, with limited assistance from at most one insider. And even though the plants are always warned about the NRC tests in advance, 47 percent have revealed "significant weaknesses" in their security forces.

"Significant here means that a real attack would have put the nuclear reactor in jeopardy with the potential for core damage and a radiological release, i.e., an American Chernobyl," NRC security specialist David N. Orrick explained in a February 1999 internal report. "This is nothing less than evidence of an abject failure by the nuclear industry to be capable by themselves of protecting against radiological sabotage."

Orrick wrote that report because the commission had just decided to scrap its own security tests. The NRC subsequently reversed itself, but before Sept. 11 it was considering a transition to industry-run self-assessments; it had scaled back its own tests from eight to six a year. It had even suspended imposition of penalties on plants where security deficiencies were revealed. Meserve said his agency has had to make tough choices within a steadily shrinking budget, but critics say it has focused far more on accelerating the licensing process for nuclear utilities than toughening security requirements.

"The mentality has always been that it can't happen here, and that has got to change," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who has hectored the NRC about nuclear plant safety for a decade. "These plants were flunking elementary school security exams, and complaining the whole time that the exams were too hard. Well, they need to start passing college level tests. Now."

For now, the NRC has suspended all force-on-force tests; this, officials say, is not the time for mock intruders near radioactive materials.

Since Sept. 11, the commission has also advised all nuclear plants to go on their highest alerts, and "to take specific actions to address threats that were not previously considered credible," Dricks said. The plants have added security agents and physical barriers, while increasing patrols and restricting access. New employees are no longer allowed to start work before their background checks are complete, and employee lists are being cross-checked with FBI terrorist watch lists. Earlier this week, the Federal Aviation Administration banned aircraft from flying within 12 miles of nuclear facilities below 18,000 feet. And Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, urged governors to supplement security at nuclear plants; at least eight have deployed National Guard troops.

Industry officials say that for all the swift changes in recent weeks, nuclear plants have always been among America's "hardest" targets; reactors, for example, are housed in buildings with four-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls. They say that whenever NRC security tests have identified security weaknesses, they have moved quickly to fix the problems. So they believe terrorists are far more likely to choose "softer" targets with less security.

"We can't guarantee we're impervious to anything that might come," said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute. "But our reactors are as well protected as anything you're going to find."

But many industry critics believe reactors are not the most worrisome nuclear targets. They fret about an attack on less fortified stockpiles of irradiated nuclear fuel that has been removed from reactors. There are about 40,000 tons of this spent fuel stored at operating and shut-down plants around the country, usually in concrete-reinforced cooling pools that were supposed to be temporary but now hold more radioactive material than the reactors themselves. Most of the spent-fuel pools are housed in fairly standard concrete or corrugated buildings; the Union of Concerned Scientists describes them as "Kmarts without neon."

The NRC's security tests have never even contemplated a possible attack on spent fuel. But a 1997 report for the NRC by Brookhaven National Laboratory concluded that a severe release from a pool could cause as many as 28,000 cancer fatalities and $59 billion in damage, rendering about 188 square miles of land unfit for habitation. And while it is generally true that "older is colder" -- the potency of spent fuel declines somewhat with time -- a 2000 NRC study found that even much older fuel could catch fire, with similar consequences. Finally, a study conducted in 2000 by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements warned that the consequences of a spent-fuel release dispersed by a bomb could be far worse.

One top NRC official is so worried about spent fuel that he recently asked Edwin Lyman, scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute, if he could stop talking so much about the subject in public. The NRC did not object to the subjects covered in this article.

The fear is that an explosion, fire or crash that drained or boiled a spent-fuel pool or destroyed its cooling system could create a massive release of radioactive cesium. But industry officials say the critics are trying to create needless hysteria. Kerekes argues that even a spent-fuel fire would not necessarily mean disaster: A plant would likely have "several hours" to put it out or start an alternative cooling system.

Even the worst-case scenarios are in dispute. The reactor explosion at Chernobyl in 1986, for example, caused 31 immediate deaths, and 1,800 children subsequently developed thyroid cancer, according to a United Nations report. But while some nuclear critics predict 20,000 additional cancer cases, John Boice, a Vanderbilt University professor who participated in the U.N. study, said that estimate is far too high. "We aren't seeing excess cases of leukemia" around Chernobyl, Boice said. That would be the first indicator of a wider impact.

Still, there is little doubt that a successful terrorist attack on a nuclear plant -- even a decommissioned facility -- could have a disastrous outcome. That was why Stanley Lane, a town selectman in Westport, Maine, was so disturbed about his Oct. 3 visit to the shuttered Maine Yankee plant.

Lane and his neighbor, a retired chemical company executive named David Bertran, drove unmolested past the plant's old perimeter in Bertran's pickup truck, which had a tarpaulin draped over its flatbed. They finally stopped near an open gate about 100 yards from the plant's buildings, which still contain more than 1,432 spent-fuel assemblies. A private security officer passed them in a van, but didn't stop to ask what they were doing.

"He was probably afraid we were terrorists," Lane joked. "They told us later that we couldn't have driven into the plant, but it's their job to make us feel comfy and calm."

Maine Yankee has blocked off its access roads. It is also preparing to move its spent fuel into "dry cask" storage, outdoor concrete casks that are considered more protective than the pools, and are now in use at about 20 plants. But those are temporary solutions, too. Years ago, the federal government promised to take permanent custody of all spent fuel, but the politics of nuclear waste have kept the promise unfulfilled. An underground repository proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nev., might become reality someday, but not for many years.

And so the focus today is on short-term safety. Nuclear plants may be required to protect themselves against a larger team of suicidal terrorists with heavier artillery and more inside help. Force-on-force tests may be extended to spent-fuel pools, perhaps even at shut-down reactors. There is talk of stockpiling anti-radiation tablets in areas downwind of nuclear plants; France has even installed antiaircraft weaponry near its largest plant.

In 1985, the average U.S. nuclear plant had more than five safety shutdowns a year. By 2000, that figure had been cut 90 percent. The question is whether those safety improvements can be replicated in the area of security.

"This is scary stuff," said Robert Alvarez, a former adviser to former energy secretary Bill Richardson. "We saw what they did on September 11. Nobody wants to think about what they could do at a nuclear facility."

-- mark (, November 03, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ