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Nuclear inactivity

Plant security issues of cost, responsibility still unresolved

By Ross Kerber, Globe Staff, 11/9/2001

Protecting the nation's nuclear power plants became a top security priority in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But two months later, questions of how much security is needed, who should be responsible, and who should pay for it still haven't been resolved.

As a result, security measures vary from plant to plant. Massachusetts and some other states have beefed up security by putting National Guard troops on patrol outside nuclear sites, while most governors say the guardsmen aren't necessary. Coast Guard patrols have begun near oceanfront reactors, but they don't extend to shuttered plants like Maine Yankee, which still stores tons of radioactive waste.

US Representative Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat who is pushing a counterterrorism bill amendment tightening nuclear plant security, calls the current defensive patchwork ''an absurd situation.'' He and other nuclear industry critics want the nation's 86 most sensitive nuclear sites protected with military assets, perhaps including Patriot antiaircraft missiles. The Pentagon is studying the possibility, though it may be weeks before various agencies can agree on what's needed.

Whatever decision emerges, the questions over nuclear security show the challenges facing the Bush administration as it tries to coordinate the new homeland security mission with the businesses that operate most of the country's sensitive utility infrastructure. Executives at some plants like Pilgrim in Plymouth, initially didn't want the National Guard, while in Connecticut, executives at the Millstone facility asked for the troops but were at first turned down.

Absent a formal declaration of war, Richard Meserve, chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says it is still deciding how to divide the security tasks between the public and private sectors. Under federal rules, nuclear power companies aren't required to protect against offensive military actions by foreign governments, which ''as a practical matter, may be beyond the defensive capability of private organizations,'' Meserve wrote in a letter to Markey.

But he added that utility companies must still ''protect against violent actions by well-trained and well-equipped persons, even those who are supported by a foreign government.'' It's not yet clear which case applies, he wrote.

''Our interactions with the newly established Office of Homeland Security and other agencies should help to further clarify where the lines between the industry's responsibilities and the national government's should be drawn,'' Meserve wrote. The head of the new office, Tom Ridge, hasn't said much on the issue, nor did President Bush in his prime-time speech last night.

Any guidance might help resolve questions facing the owners of other sensitive infrastructure like oil pipelines, chemical plants, and water systems. In Boston, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and the Distrigas unit of Belgium's Tractabel SA have clashed over protections for the firm's natural-gas shipping terminal in Everett, and who should pay for these measures. Questions of cost and responsibility were also heard in the debate over aviation security.

Industrial sectors are watching the nuclear industry for signals, said Robert Housman, a Washington attorney who represents several energy firms. Infrastructure operators should get at least some military assistance, he said, since ''we don't expect private companies to have their own air defenses or foreign-intelligence operations.''

Without more assistance, he noted, industries would have to pass along higher security costs to customers in the form of higher prices. On the other hand, Housman noted the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of military personnel for domestic police work. For Ridge, ''it's a balancing act,'' Housman said.

Nuclear-plant safety is a priority because few other industries pose public safety risks as large as the country's 103 operating reactors, which provide a fifth of America's electric supply. These installations already boast defenses such as heavily armed security forces and thick concrete domes, and some counterrorism experts say an attack is more likely on softer targets.

Yet none of the domes were designed to withstand the crash of a loaded jetliner, an event that a 1980 analysis by the Argonne National Laboratory said ''may result in multiple failure-initiating events.'' Moreover, many nuclear plants store tons of radioactive uranium fuel rods in more lightly defended cooling pools outside the domes themselves.

Some fear the biggest risk from a terrorist attack on nuclear plants isn't an explosion, but a release of radiation that could leave hundreds of square miles uninhabitable.

In the days after Sept. 11, all sides seemed to be moving in a similar direction. The NRC recommended that plants go to their highest levels of alert and took down much of the data on the agency's Web site, in case any of it might compromise security. Steps to stockpile pills that protect against radiation poisoning also picked up speed. On Oct. 30, the Federal Aviation Administration created no-fly zones around major nuclear sites. But the no-fly zones expired Wednesday after congressmen complained they shut down too many local airports.

Some nuclear executives say they don't need much help. In Plymouth, for instance, Pilgrim Station owner Entergy Corp. initially turned down National Guardsmen offered by acting Governor Jane M. Swift, partly to avoid having to integrate them with the plant's existing security plans. But even after they were dispatched on Oct. 22, federal rules barred the soldiers from entering Pilgrim, limiting the military mission to perimeter security.

Meanwhile, other plants couldn't get troops as fast as they wished. Dominion Resources, owner of the Millstone nuclear complex in Waterford, Conn., asked Governor John G. Rowland to send guardsmen shortly after Sept. 11, but was rebuffed because the company hadn't created a specific mission for the troops, said Dean Pagini, a spokesman for Rowland.

Rowland changed his mind after a conference call with Ridge on Oct. 29, the day Ridge and Attorney General John Ashcroft warned an unspecified terrorist act might be imminent.

The presence of National Guardsmen is no guarantee of safety, of course, and sites like the Seabrook reactor in New Hampshire have boosted security with state troopers instead.

Edward McGaffigan Jr., a member of the NRC, said security at all facilities is high, regardless of what forces they have called upon. He's more worried about attacks on industrial targets like oil refineries, whose security plans receive less scrutiny.

''We're never going to give the public perfect assurance, but compared to other infrastructure I believe we've given the public a very high level of assurance,'' McGaffigan said.

Still undecided is who will pay for the extra security steps, or whether these costs can be passed on to ratepayers. Even nuclear-industry critics say they don't know the answers. In Plymouth, Pilgrim spokesman David Tarantino said it hasn't been told to expect a bill and that, realistically, the military ought to provide some services without charge.

''I assume that's why we pay taxes,'' Tarantino said.

Some local activists have complained that the plants' utility owners didn't provide enough security at first. Near the Maine Yankee facility in Wiscasset, two local residents say they weren't challenged when, as a test in late September, they drove a pickup truck onto the plant's property and to within 100 feet of a building housing tons of radioactive spent fuel.

''Nobody came and stopped us, nobody cared,'' said one of the visitors, Stanley Lane, a selectman in the neighboring town of Westport, Maine.

A spokesman for Maine Yankee said the site has since beefed up its perimeter. The nuclear industry's trade association, the Nuclear Energy Institute, says security is robust in general.

Ralph Beedle, the group's senior vice president, has also raised some of the industry's own security concerns. In early October, he asked regulators to relax a rule imposed after Sept. 11 that required all nuclear plant workers to pass complete background checks before they could enter sensitive areas.

The trade group sought a return to the practice of allowing workers access to the plants for a few days while their background checks were processed, to speed up refueling work.

''It's a management issue,'' Beedle said of the request.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington lobbying group, didn't see it that way. In an Oct. 3 letter to regulators, David Lochbaum, the group's nuclear safety engineer, wrote: ''It is almost unbelievable that the nuclear industry, which so often claims to have safety as its chief priority, would call for reduced security at the same time that governors across the United States are calling out National Guard troops to provide extra security at airports.''

Ultimately, regulators turned down Beedle's request.

Ross Kerber can be reached by e-mail at

-- Martin Thompson (, November 09, 2001


Just maybe the communities next to it, or down wind, should be drawing straws for guard duty

-- don park (, November 10, 2001.

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