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.
rammed even a relatively small plane into a nuclear reactor, it could
cause a full-scale meltdown and widespread radiation contamination, Markey
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.
Officials Say Report Is Too Critical
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
• 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.
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.
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
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
The FBI had no comment on how it works with the nuclear
industry to screen prospective employees at nuclear power plants.