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The Rockets' Red Glare

NRC blase about dangers to nuke plants

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Independence Day 2002 --loaded with patriotism and celebration -- creates an attractive target date for terrorists, as the Bush administration has warned us. But if those fireworks are exploding anywhere near the nation's 103 operating commercial nuclear reactors, including the McGuire plant on Lake Norman or the Catawba plant on Lake Wylie, you might want to make sure those blasts are from "safe-and-sane" fireworks.Consider this, since the September 11 terrorist attacks:

Security drills at all nuclear power plants have been suspended.

After nearly 10 months, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is still evaluating a change in its basic engineering assumptions over the ability of nuclear facilities to withstand attacks.

The NRC is also still evaluating potential effects of a large airplane strike on a nuke.

Only one NRC security inspector has been assigned since January for all the 21 operating reactors in the western region of the US.

Although it is ostensibly doing something, between the secrecy surrounding new security measures and the significant lag time in evaluating new engineering and design to harden commercial facilities, the NRC appears publicly blase about nuclear plants' vulnerability. NRC spokesperson Breck Henderson responded to a minimum of inquiries, for instance, but prefaced the federal riposte with: "You're not doing another story on security?"

Federal regulators' indifferent attitude was highlighted in a spat carried out in the nation's media in April. A recent discovery at the Davis-Besse plant in California, which found that corrosion had withered away nearly all of the reactor cap containment, brought a general "no problem" from regulators. That was challenged by a former NRC member. Victor Gilinsky, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, called the NRC's "bland pronouncements" about the safety of nuclear plants given the hole at Davis-Besse "disturbing." Current NRC chair Richard Meserve defended the agency's response as "appropriate" in an op-ed response.

The NRC is also tortoise-slow in getting action on security measures. It has been anything but bland in opposing any attempt by Congress to require active military defenses at power plants, assuring leaders it is unnecessary.

The most vociferous opponent of using active defense through the military at nuclear plants is NRC commissioner Ed McGaffigan. He's dismissed Congressional concerns, and yet admits, "There will be some vulnerability. Not every building is going to be built like a missile silo."

Since September 11, the NRC has, and has not, done the following to address concerns over terrorists using nuclear plants as a target.

Increased securityThe NRC will not give details of what it has requested nuclear power plant owners to accomplish regarding increased security. In general, however, the NRC ordered reactor owners on February 25 to: increase patrols, augment security forces and capabilities, add security posts, install additional physical barriers, reposition vehicle checks at greater stand-off distances, enhance coordination with law enforcement and military authorities and restrict site access controls, according to Meserve.

The NRC said the Immigration & Naturalization Service had been checking its potential terrorist list against nuclear plant personnel; the INS did not confirm that practice.

DrillsThe drills the NRC carried out prior to September 11 using pseudo-commandos to test nuclear power plant guards' reactions have been terminated with no re-start in sight. According to Meserve, continuing the drills would be "a significant distraction" to power plant security forces. A date to reinstate the drills has not been ascertained.

The drills have been carried out at least once at each nuclear plant, according to Nuclear Control Institute president Ed Lyman. One of the most infamous was in California at the San Onofre plant in November 2000. Anti-nuclear activists claim the NRC's pseudo-commandos overtook plant guards. This is despite operators being able to hear elements of the planned drill scenario on the PA system, according to NRC reports. The drill was called off for unspecified reasons and the NRC insists no safety is being compromised.

Design basis threat, airplane threatNRC chair Meserve told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works June 5 that regulatory staff is still determining whether and what to do about nuclear reactor design to harden it against attacks. The chair of the committee, Jim Jeffords (I-Vermont), noted that the basic assumptions on power plant security design have not been changed for over 40 years.

NRC spokesperson Henderson said there is no expected date when evaluation of either the basic reactor design to withstand current terrorist threats or the evaluation of potential damage and response from a large airplane aimed at a power plant will be completed. Once that evaluation and determination is made, then it will likely be many months, if not years, before construction is accomplished.

J.A. Savage is senior correspondent for the independent publication California Energy Markets.

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