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Nuclear Regulatory Agency Lax on Reactor Security, Congressional Audit Finds


Published: September 28, 2003

WASHINGTON, Sept. 27 When two Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials found a security guard asleep at his post at the Indian Point 2 nuclear reactor last year, the agency decided not to issue a notice of violation because there was no terrorist attack on the plant during the half-hour or so that the guard was sleeping, a Congressional audit has found.

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The incident was included in a report issued late Wednesday that was broadly critical of the commission's assessments of reactor security, but the reactor was not identified. People with knowledge of the audit, which was done by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, confirmed on Friday that the incident occurred at Indian Point 2, in Buchanan, N.Y., about 35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan, on July 29, 2002.

The auditors said that nationwide, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tended not to issue formal citations and to minimize the significance of problems it found if the problems did not cause actual damage. Commission inspectors treated the Indian Point incident as a "non-cited violation" because it did not affect plant security, according to a report issued by the commission that describes an inspection at the plant. The report also says the commission did not treat the incident more seriously because no guards had been found sleeping "more than twice during the past year."

The report described the guard as "inattentive to duty," a term that the agency often uses in its reports. Agency officials say they cannot prove that an individual is asleep, even one who is not moving and whose eyes are closed.

The commission has tried to reduce sleeping on the job at nuclear plants by limiting how much overtime a plant operator can order a guard to perform.

"The security response officer's failure to meet specific conditions of the Indian Point 2 Physical Security Plan, relative to assuring that armed responders will be available on site at all times for response to safeguards events, constitutes a performance deficiency," the inspection report said. "The cause of this event was reasonably within Entergy's ability to foresee and correct; and should have been prevented." Entergy Corporation bought Indian Point 2 from Consolidated Edison and the companion reactor, Indian Point 3, from the New York Power Authority.

But the incident had "low safety significance" because "no actual intrusion occurred," the inspection report said.

The General Accounting Office audit, which examined the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's monitoring of reactors' security nationwide, contained several other critical findings, including that the "attackers" used in security drills lack adequate training and the weapons that simulate those terrorists would use, and that the defenders are unrealistically overstaffed. During drills, the commission allows the use of off-duty guards, guards from other plants and police officers, all of whom have defensive training.

That issue has arisen at Indian Point, which held a "force-on-force" drill in midsummer. This month, the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group here that has studied and reported extensively on reactor security, released a report based in part on interviews with guards at Indian Point. The report complained that in the drill this summer, the attackers crossed open terrain in broad daylight, something terrorists would not do.

But the director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's office of nuclear security and incident response, Roy P. Zimmerman, said the commission "brings in experts" to train those people posing as attackers. He would not say whether these experts were from the armed forces or elsewhere. In the 1980's, the commission used Green Berets to assess plant security.

The General Accounting Office also said that auditors who reviewed 80 commission reports of force-on-force exercises found that at 12 plants, the operators added security guards, and at 35, guards got extra training. Most plants also took special precautions before the drills.

"It's virtually cheating when you do that," said Peter Stockton, a senior investigator with the Project on Government Oversight and a former security adviser to the federal energy secretary.

Mr. Zimmerman said the commission expected plants that made such improvements to do so permanently. But the General Accounting Office report said that a regulatory commission official, whom it did not identify, said the agency could require the plants to have on duty only the number of guards specified in their security plans, and that if they added guards before a drill and removed them later, the agency "could not hold a licensee accountable for ramping down" after the exercise.

Mr. Zimmerman said that in the case of the sleeping guard, even if the commission did not issue a formal violation, "it still requires that corrective action be taken."

"It sounds as if the inspection process looked at the bigger picture of whether this was indicative of a more chronic situation," he said, "or whether it appeared to be isolated in nature, in order to be able to assign the appropriate safety context to the occurrence."

However, the General Accounting Office report said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's findings that security was adequate might be wrong in some cases because violations were not always pursued.

In its report, which was requested by Representatives Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and John D. Dingell of Michigan, both Democrats, the accounting office did not reach a conclusion about the adequacy of security at Indian Point or any other plant.

But it listed other cases, in which the plants were not identified, where the commission staff failed to follow up. In one, according to the accounting office, the commission found that tamper alarms on a door in a sensitive area had been disabled, and "the only compensatory measure implemented was to have a guard check the location once during each 12-hour shift."

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