The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has quietly issued new
security standards that nuclear power plants must meet to defend
against terrorist attacks. If this was intended to help people
living near the plants sleep more soundly, it was a dismal failure.
The few specific improvements the commission made public were
unambitious, and it kept secret its "design basis threat" — the
elaborate set of rules spelling out the most likely terrorism
attacks that the reactors must be protected against.
The new rules did include some sensible if limited new criteria
on the hiring and use of security guards, and required other steps
to "enhance" the power plants' security strategies. But the design
basis threat is the centerpiece of the government's antiterrorism
effort — and in a break with tradition, the commission refused to
make public even its nonclassified elements.
Keeping the terrorists guessing about our defenses was presumably
one motivation for the secrecy. However, it might also reflect the
commission's desire to play down its acquiescence to the nuclear
industry's hubristic view that the plants are nearly invulnerable.
Washington has long been reluctant to impose burdensome
requirements based on hypothetical threats. In 1982, for example,
federal authorities declared that nuclear plants need not defend
against kamikaze attacks by airplanes — the cost, it was determined,
outweighed the risks.
In 1985, I was one of several experts on military sabotage who
appeared before the commission's advisory board on reactor
safeguards to make a case for tightening the standards. We argued
that the existing rule — which required utilities to be prepared
only for an attack involving a handful of terrorists using handheld
weapons — did not address the emerging terrorist risk. Our
presentation was met with ridicule. One member scoffed: "Now it's
truck bombs. What are you going to require us to do next, defend
against attacks by aircraft or boats?"
In 1994, after the first World Trade Center bombing, I again
appeared before the commission to discuss evidence that the
terrorists had also contemplated attacks on reactors. I argued
against the commission's presumptions — especially the idea that
there would be timely warning before any attacks. It did finally
concede that the risk of truck bombs should be taken more seriously.
However, any changes made to heighten security against truck bomb
attacks were kept secret. (Likewise, if the commission is intent on
keeping the new rules classified, it should at least be prepared to
tell us they will protect against the devastating types of bombs
used this month in Saudi Arabia.)
In subsequent years public policy groups like the Nuclear Control
Institute and the Committee to Bridge the Gap pressed the commission
to change other elements of the design basis threat. Yet when the
commission finally revisited the issue seriously after 9/11, it
excluded any input from those public groups that had pointed out the
inadequacy of standards in the first place.
Instead, it worked only with cleared government agencies and the
energy industry itself — the same companies whose most significant
step after 9/11 was to require their ill-prepared security guards to
work exceedingly long hours.
Guards from several of the reactors told a watchdog group, the
Project on Government Oversight, that they felt they were incapable
of resisting a ground assault. The regulatory commission says it
will work to improve these security systems by conducting mock
attacks. However, the results of these exercises will not be
released to the public and no fines will be levied for initial
failures. In past drills, the mock terrorists have succeeded at
nearly half the plants tested — though the utilities were given
months to prepare and even told the dates the attacks would come.
And following such exercises, utilities are likely to ratchet down
plant security — the assumption being that there will be similar
advance warning before a real attack.
The new rules may be a reaction to 9/11, but the commission
doesn't seem to have learned the lesson of those attacks — not a
thing will be done to reduce the vulnerability of reactors to
strikes from the air. Some senators are talking about bypassing the
commission and legislating new standards. This might be a long-term
fix, but such laws would take take years to write, enact and put
into effect. For now, Congress should demand a full public
accounting of the commission's latest standards and ensure that it
start meeting the security requirements of the post-9/11
Bennett Ramberg, a former policy analyst at the State
Department, is author of "Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the