ASHINGTON, Oct. 23 — In the what's-next guessing game
that began after the terrorist attacks last year, a divide has
opened up among experts assessing the risk to the public from
attacks on nuclear power plants.
Many current and former government officials say the
reactors are in Al Qaeda's cross hairs, but inside the
industry, many executives counter that what drives the issue
is politics and unreasoning fear.
Current and former high-ranking officials at Andrews Air
Force Base in Maryland for a recent exercise on how to cope
with terrorism illustrated this divide. Over two days, they
simulated a meeting of the National Security Council and were
fed hypothetical situations in which intelligence, vague and
conflicting at first but becoming more specific as the hours
went by, indicated an attack somewhere in the eastern United
They were also given an assessment that said that the
targets vulnerable to the widest range of threats were not
nuclear reactors, but places where chemicals were manufactured
Almost immediately, the role-players shifted the discussion
to how to protect the reactors.
"The players defaulted in that direction," said Dave
McIntyre, the deputy director of the Anser Institute for
Homeland Security, a nonprofit group that sponsored the
exercise with the Center for Strategic and International
Mr. McIntyre said he thought the concern with reactors was
an unnecessary detour, because their security had been
improved far more than security for other potential targets.
But the group did not see it that way.
Reporters who were allowed to sit in on the exercise had to
agree not to quote the participants, to allow them, the
sponsors said, "to be as open and candid as possible" in the
The group included former Senator Sam Nunn, playing the
president; James M. Loy, the head of the Transportation
Security Administration, playing the role of secretary of
homeland security; Charles Curtis, a former under secretary of
energy, playing energy secretary; George Terwilliger, former
acting attorney general, as attorney general; R. James
Woolsey, the former C.I.A. director, as national security
adviser; Wesley Clark, the former supreme allied commander in
Europe, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Other participants played the jobs they used to have: James
S. Gilmore III, former governor of Virginia; Shirley Jackson,
former chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission; James
Lee Witt, former head of the Federal Emergency Management
Agency, and Dee Dee Myers, a former White House spokeswoman.
They explored creating a 50-mile zone around each nuclear
plant where all flights would be banned, or bringing in
On the other side, some people outside the simulation who
are actually in charge of security at nuclear plants say they
do not believe that they are threatened by terrorism, and are
unenthusiastic about security improvements.
Mark P. Findlay, the director of security at the Nuclear
Management Company, which operates six Midwestern reactors,
said in a telephone interview that there had been no credible
threats against nuclear plants, and that he would prefer not
to hire more guards now, for fear of having to lay them off
"How do I deal with staffing levels when I have a
government that's based on politics and not events and
credible threats?" Mr. Findlay said.
The airlines might once have said the same, and there have
been attacks on nuclear plants abroad.
Mr. Findlay is not alone. Last month, 19 current and former
executives in the nuclear power plant field published a paper
in Science magazine that asserted that a reactor could easily
withstand a crash of the kind that destroyed the World Trade
Center, a position disputed by others, including some on whose
work the authors relied. The Science article argued that talk
of vulnerability was simply wild-eyed conjecture by people who
never liked nuclear power anyway.
That category includes at least some local government
officials who are now uneasy about the reactors in their
midst. In the neighborhood of the Indian Point reactors, 40
miles north of midtown Manhattan, local governments have
passed resolutions against them. In Westchester County, where
the two plants are, the County Board of Legislators voted on
Sept. 9 to close them eventually.
If the plants are so safe, why are so many people worried
"The news media has made the nuclear industry the poster
child for the post-Sept. 11 world," said Steve Kerekes, a
spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's
trade association. "People who have been inundated for a year
now gravitate toward that topic."
"Some media grad student ought to do a study of air time
and column inches dedicated to the subject," Mr. Kerekes
Peter Stockton, a nuclear security expert who is a former
special assistant to the secretary of energy, drew a different
conclusion. Mr. Stockton, who now works on civilian power
plant security questions with the Project on Government
Oversight, a nonprofit group here, said the power plant
managers were in denial as the managers of nuclear weapons
plants were when he was at the Energy Department.
"They say, `We've been at this for 50 years and we've never
been attacked yet,' " he said. "They believe a credible threat
is that a terrorist group has targeted that one plant, and
Paul M. Blanch, an engineer who found safety problems a
decade ago at the nuclear utility where he worked, and whom
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later said was mistreated by
his employer as a result, said the denial was "par for the
course for the nuclear industry."
"The industry has been defensive about every threat,
whether it's security or accident," Mr. Blanch said.
"If something happens, like happened with airlines, maybe
they wouldn't be so defensive," he said, "but it hasn't
happened yet. "