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Surrounded by Nukes

Charlotte's troubling peculiarity

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What's been done since 9/11

After 9/11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission pulled together a new, more stringent plan for protecting nuclear plants. The specifics of the plan are classified, but according to Rose Cummings of Duke Power's Public Affairs department, security forces at nuclear plants were increased to approximately 8,000 officers at 64 sites. Cummings says the industry has also implemented new security measures which include: extending and fortifying security perimeters, installing new barriers to protect against vehicle bombs, increasing patrols within security zones, as well as installing high-tech surveillance equipment and strengthening coordination of security efforts with local, state and federal agencies.

In 2003, the US General Accountability Office -- an independent, nonpartisan agency that studies and advises the government on how its agencies are being run -- identified serious problems with the NRC's oversight of nuclear plant security. A year later, the GAO found that little had been accomplished to address some of those shortcomings: the NRC's assessment of individual plant security plans is merely a "paper review" and lacks detail sufficient to determine whether plants can repel an attack; security plans are largely based on a template that often omits key site-specific information; NRC officials do not typically visit plants to obtain site-specific information; NRC readiness tests at all facilities will take three years to conduct; the NRC does not plan to make the improvements to its inspection plan.

In addition, the GAO criticized the obvious conflict of interest in how the NRC conducts mock attacks on nuclear plants. The "adversary force" in the attacks are from a company named Wackenhut, which guards half the country's reactors. The GAO implies the federal government deliberately stages "softball" mock attacks to give the impression of plant security, but even then, the "attackers" penetrate plant defenses in half their attempts and initiate simulated catastrophic radiation releases. And that's after the "defenders" have been given advance notice of the precise time of the exercise and reinforced their defenses in anticipation.

In a March 2004 move that raised eyebrows at watchdog groups such as Public Citizen, the NRC proposed allowing plant operators to rely on manual, rather than automatic, shutdowns of equipment in areas surrounded by smoke, fire and radiation. Public Citizen claims this is a weakening of fire safety regulations and would make it harder for a reactor to be safely shut down in the event of a fire caused by a terrorist attack. The NRC has been accused of wanting to water down the rule because many plants are not actually in compliance with current fire protection regulations. Calls to the NRC for comment were not returned.

Meanwhile, here are the changes that have been made since 9/11 in the critical areas identified above:

• Vulnerability to catastrophic damage from an airplane crashing into one of the stations' buildings.

The American nuclear industry still believes there is only a remote possibility of a jetliner crashing into a nuclear plant, therefore they haven't done anything to lessen the chance of it happening. In fact, in 2002, when the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved legislation that would have required nuclear plants to withstand attacks comparable to 9/11, the Bush administration opposed the bill and worked with the NRC and the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear plant owners' trade association, to stop it. The bill was never voted on by the full Senate. Since then, the NRC and the Bush administration have continued to oppose congressional efforts for additional security regulation.

• Vulnerability of spent fuel rod storage pools.

Details of recent security exercises against a mock terrorist attack are not available, but in the past, the NRC never tested the security of spent fuel storage. Instead, the intruders' target was always the reactor. Some of the changes mandated by the NRC since 9/11, including fortified perimeters, new barriers to block car bombs, increased patrols and new surveillance equipment, would be helpful in thwarting a ground attack on storage pools, although an attack by air would scarcely be affected.

• Vulnerability to ground attack.

As noted above, changes made at the direction of the NRC would be helpful in turning back a ground attack on a nuclear plant. Eventual success of the defense of the plant would also depend on security personnel training and the resources available to the attackers.


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