WASHINGTON - (KRT) - The nuclear power
industry seems to have escaped budget-busting new security
guidelines, but critics say the move still leaves reactors
vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently completed a
much-anticipated revision of the hypothetical terrorist threat
against which nuclear plants must defend.
Details of the document, driven by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks, are secret. By all appearances, however, industry
predictions of costly new requirements were unfounded.
Lynnette Hendricks, director of licensing for the Nuclear Energy
Institute, a trade group, said the NRC backed away from "ridiculous"
security edicts that had been discussed privately in recent months.
Not long ago, the financially frail industry said its 65 sites might
have to spend an average of $30 million apiece over the next two
years to meet what industry officials characterized as unreasonable
Having seen the classified document - known as the design basis
threat - Hendricks said, "I don't think it will be nearly that much.
What they put out is fairly reasonable."
Not everyone is satisfied. Peter Stockton, a former congressional
investigator and Department of Energy consultant who has followed
the NRC security reassessment closely, said the agency apparently
succumbed to industry and congressional pressure and tailored the
design basis threat to what nuclear utilities could handle without
absorbing huge costs.
"They did it totally backwards," said Stockton, now a senior
investigator with the Project On Government Oversight, a watchdog
group. "You figure out what a credible threat is to a nuclear power
plant, and then you size your guard force to meet that threat."
Stockton and other NRC critics said the design basis threat in
existence before Sept. 11, 2001, was unrealistic in an age of
escalating terror. Based on their understanding of the new one, they
said, nuclear power plants remain vulnerable to large groups of
well-armed, well-organized attackers.
The pre-Sept. 11, 2001, hypothesis was that, at worst, a few
poorly trained terrorists would attack a site such as Comanche Peak,
southwest of Dallas, or South Texas, southwest of Houston, with
low-tech weapons. Ten years of force-on-force exercises - pitting
teams of mock defenders against teams of mock terrorists - showed
that about half of the plants could not stop even these rudimentary
sorts of assaults, Stockton said.
The industry says its performance was never that bad and it has
shored up its already formidable defenses in the last 19 months. The
Nuclear Energy Institute says each site has added an average of 29
guards, made $2 million in capital improvements and seen an annual
increase of $2.3 million in operating expenses as a result of
interim security requirements imposed by the NRC.
Until recently, it appeared the agency would demand much more.
This propelled the industry and its allies into action.
In testimony before a House subcommittee in March, Lance Terry,
principal nuclear officer for Dallas-based TXU, which operates
Comanche Peak, warned the NRC might force utilities to redesign
plants so they could withstand heavier weaponry. This, the former
Navy commander said, would be like "converting a cruiser to a
Terry, who chairs the Nuclear Energy Institute's Security Working
Group, estimated it would cost the industry $2 billion over the next
two years to make the changes being discussed at the time. "We think
that we have cooperatively and responsibly moved to our limits," he
In letters to the NRC, three Republican senators came to the
industry's defense. "It is important that we recognize the efforts
of the industry, and that we do not unnecessarily undermine its
ability to provide low-cost power for (its) customers," wrote Sen.
Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
The debate over nuclear security has been conducted largely out
of public view, at the NRC's insistence. Richard Rosano,
communications team leader in the agency's Office of Nuclear
Security and Incident Response, would not comment on any aspect of
the new design basis threat. Nor would he discuss what role, if any,
industry objections played in the shaping of the finished
Rosano did say, "This is a strong move into the future that takes
into account a lot of the things we have learned in the months
following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."
The months of discord that went into the development of the
document came down to this: How much protection against terrorism
should private industry be forced to provide, and at what point
should the government step in? Feelings on both sides of the issue
Said U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis: "We can't ask TXU to put up
Patriot anti-missile batteries."
Countered Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass.: "Taxpayers should not have
to bear the burden of securing energy facilities that can recoup the
cost by increasing the price of the fuel they sell."
Before Sept. 11, it was assumed that a plant would be attacked by
no more than three terrorists, with help from an insider, and that
the terrorists would enter the property as a single unit.
In 1991, the NRC began testing plants under what was known as the
Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation program. Exercises were
conducted at all 65 nuclear sites, with 103 reactors, over the next
decade; some were tested twice.
Each utility was graded on its ability to keep mock terrorists
from reaching the control room or other critical areas of the plant,
where they could cut off coolant to the reactor and possibly trigger
In about half of the exercises, the NRC identified "serious
problems that had to be fixed," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear
safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "That was a
fairly constant performance rate. There was no evidence of a
Rosano, who directed the NRC's testing program from 1997 to 2001,
said it would be misleading to suggest there was a nearly 50 percent
failure rate. Rather, he said, agency evaluators logged negative
findings - some quite minor - at 47 percent of the plants tested.
Significant flaws were noted at 15 percent, he said.
"The reason we conduct these force-on-force exercises is
precisely to find these problems," Rosano said. "They're not
Two years into the program, in February 1993, the Three Mile
Island plant in Pennsylvania was confronted with a real threat: a
former mental patient who drove a station wagon through a fence
during a shift change, rammed a door leading to the turbine building
and hid inside for four hours before being apprehended. The man was
unarmed and carried no explosives, and none of the plant's vital
areas was affected. Some, however, were unsettled by the intruder's
foray and the amount of time it took to find him.
A decade after that incident, Lochbaum harbors deep concerns
about security. He worries, for example, about assaults on spent
fuel pools, packed tightly with used but radioactive fuel
assemblies. At about a third of the nation's reactors - not at
Comanche Peak or South Texas - these pools are above ground, making
them especially susceptible to attack from the air, he said.
Lochbaum, who worked in the power industry for 17 years, also
frets about dry-cask fuel storage facilities - holding areas for
waste encased in concrete and lead casks. "They're fairly easy to
get at," he said. "A lot of the time you don't even have to cross
the fence boundary to get a line of sight" - an appealing scenario
for a terrorist armed with a rocket-propelled grenade.
Department of Energy consultant Ron Timm also remains
"The power plants quite literally get the snot kicked out of
them" by adversaries in the NRC exercises, said Timm, president of
RETA Security Inc. of Lemont, Ill.
In Timm's view, "the DOE is probably two generations ahead of
where the NRC is today" in field testing and computer modeling of
security risks. In DOE exercises, for example, mock combatants carry
rifles fitted with laser transmitters and wear sensor-equipped vests
and headbands. A successful "shot" produces a piercing tone.
For NRC exercises, suspended after Sept. 11, 2001, the faux
weapon of choice was a plastic gun that makes a chirping noise.
Under the NRC program, a site was tested, on average, every eight
years. Utilities provided defenders and adversaries. The agency
selected targets and gave tactical advice to the bogus
In April 2002, the NRC's David Orrick told a House subcommittee
that all plants had been given ample time to prepare for the tests
but that almost half "still had a weakness in armed response." The
good news, he said, was that the utilities that did poorly seemed to
learn from their mistakes.
In a September report, the Project On Government Oversight quoted
more than a dozen guards who took a dim view of security at their
plants. The guards and the plants were not identified.
One officer, who worked at a reactor being decommissioned, said
alarms had been removed from fences and the armed response force had
been gutted. He estimated that it would take terrorists only 20
seconds to get through the fence and reach the spent fuel pool.
Another said some guards slept at posts during the night shift. A
third predicted half the guard force would flee if attacked. Many
complained of low wages, long hours and meager benefits.
Rosano said the NRC has tried to address such problems. On the
same day it came out with the new design basis threat, the agency
issued orders limiting guards' working hours and requiring enhanced
training. NRC-run exercises will resume at some point, possibly next
The NRC last tested Comanche Peak in 1999, Terry said. Although
he would not disclose specific results, he said, "we did very
Terry contends that nuclear plants are among the safest - if not
the safest - industrial installations in the United States. The
industry-funded Electric Power Research Institute, for example,
recently concluded that the crash of a Boeing 767 into a reactor
containment building, spent fuel pool or dry-cask storage facility
would not cause a radiation release.
"Sure, we'd have a problem," Terry said. "We'd have a catastrophe
just like you would have a catastrophe if an airplane crashed out in
the middle of a field, and we would have to combat that, but there
would not be a penetration of the containment or the spent fuel pool
or the dry-cask storage, based on the analysis that the industry
Nuclear plants, Terry asserted, "are considered by everyone that
looks at them to be a hardened target, and that includes the FBI. It
includes state police. It includes congressmen."
© 2003, The Dallas Morning News.
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