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March 26, 2002
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Nuclear Plants Said to Face Big Attack Risk
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An occasional series exploring the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks on American society.

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By JOSH MEYER, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The nation's 103 nuclear power reactors are vulnerable to a potentially catastrophic terrorist attack but have taken few safety countermeasures since Sept. 11, even though they have been targeted by Al Qaeda, a congressman alleged in a report released Monday.

In the document--which was immediately discounted by the nuclear power industry--Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said the nation's commercially operated reactors are at risk from a wide variety of assaults, including sabotage from foreign workers who were not adequately screened for ties to terrorist organizations.

The nuclear plants are also vulnerable to the same kind of suicide hijackings that leveled the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, Markey said in the report, titled "Security Gap: A Hard Look at Soft Spots in Our Civilian Nuclear Reactor Security."

Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is a longtime critic of the commission who has accused it of being too cozy with the industry it regulates. He said his report was based on information provided by the commission's five members and other regulatory officials in response to his detailed questions about nuclear plant safety after Sept. 11.

If hijackers rammed even a relatively small plane into a nuclear reactor, it could cause a full-scale meltdown and widespread radiation contamination, Markey said.

The report also contends that guards at nuclear plants are underpaid, undertrained and incapable of repelling an attack from marauding terrorists intent on gaining entry to the facility. And spent radioactive nuclear fuel from the plants also isn't protected as well as it should be, he added.

Industry Officials Say Report Is Too Critical

Nuclear regulatory officials said Markey's report was far too critical of safety issues at nuclear plants, and inaccurate in places. They would not, however, discuss in detail where the report might be inaccurate, saying they would respond on a point-by-point basis at a later date.

"On the whole, we disagree with his contention that we have not done enough to strengthen security," NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said. "Security at nuclear plants was strong before 9/11 and it was strengthened in the immediate aftermath of the attacks."

But Markey said many of the responses by NRC officials were unsatisfactory. "Black hole after black hole is described and left unaddressed," he wrote. "Post-[Sept. 11], a nuclear safety agency that does not know--and seems little interested in finding out--the nationality of nuclear reactor workers or the level of resources being spent on security at these sensitive facilities is not doing its job."

Markey is co-sponsoring a bill that would allow the federal government to take over security at nuclear plants in much the same way it has at airports after Sept. 11. Such a takeover has been vigorously opposed by the NRC and nuclear industry officials.

In his report, Markey said the NRC and its licensed operators have ignored concerns about safety for many years, but that the issue took on far more urgency after the Sept. 11 attacks, when evidence was found indicating that Al Qaeda operatives are interested in targeting nuclear materials and civilian nuclear power plants in the U.S.

Last month, The Times reported that a confidential intelligence report indicates that Osama bin Laden's operatives displayed a keen interest in exploiting vulnerabilities in security at sensitive U.S. facilities, including nuclear plants, and noted that Al Qaeda-trained agents were still at large in the United States.

"I think Markey is exactly on target in terms of his criticism of the commission's inaction on upgrading nuclear power plant security," said Paul Leventhal, president of the nonpartisan Nuclear Control Institute and a former staff director of the Senate nuclear regulation subcommittee.

Markey's report also said:

The NRC does not know what its licensees spend on security or how many security guards are employed at each reactor.

Twenty-one U.S. nuclear reactors are located within five miles of an airport, but 96% of all U.S. reactors were designed without regard for the potential for impact from even a small aircraft.

The NRC has rejected placing antiaircraft capabilities at nuclear facilities, even though other countries have chosen to do so, especially for reactors located close to airports.

Spent nuclear fuel is stored in significant quantities at reactors across the U.S., including in California, yet it is often kept in buildings that are not "hardened structures," some of which reportedly have sheet metal roofs.

But Markey said he was particularly concerned about what he described as inadequate screening of nuclear plant employees for potential ties to terrorist organizations.

The NRC, he said, does not know how many foreign nationals it employs and requires little in the way of background checks. Security is so poor, he said, that terrorists could already be secretly working at reactors, and the independent operators--and the NRC--would not know it. He noted that Mohamed Atta and the other Sept. 11 hijackers had no criminal records or other problems that would be flagged under the current screening process.

Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the trade association and lobbying group for the nuclear power industry requires all power plants to screen employees and to monitor them closely.

The plants, he said, provide fingerprints and other information about prospective employees to the FBI, which then examines their employment, education and criminal history. Some employees working in sensitive areas must also pass psychological exams.

Singer also said the FBI "checks these people against the FBI watch list of suspected terrorists, and the FBI continues to update that list and share it with the [nuclear power] industry."

And the trade association has boasted in recent newspaper ads that security forces at nuclear power plants are highly professional. "They are basically paramilitary forces and are highly trained," Singer said. "These are not your typical airport security people."

The FBI had no comment on how it works with the nuclear industry to screen prospective employees at nuclear power plants.

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