Nuclear plants could be next targets of terrorists

Eugene Carroll
St Paul Pioneer Press
September 18, 2001

In the wake of the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Towers in New York and damaged the Pentagon, American security officials have begun to think in earnest about some of the other targets that future terrorists might attack.

Among those that come to mind are America’s huge oil refineries, which could be set aflame with catastrophic economic and environmental consequences. Also in the crosshairs of terrorists saboteurs are the country’s communication centers and banking systems, which are essential to domestic and international commerce. But by far, the most dangerous, vulnerable and significant targets are the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States.

While these plants are said to be secure, too much evidence suggests otherwise.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission administers a number of supervisory programs to ensure security, chief among them being an Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation inspection program.

Under the OSRE routine, a nuclear plant is warned that a simulated sabotage effort will be made against their installation by a team of would-be saboteurs in a force-on-force exercise. These teams are composed of both NRC and private contractor personnel under the direction of a David Orrik, a retired Navy SEAL.

In approximately half of recent tests, the intruders succeeded in defeating the security measures, even reaching the central control room on occasion. The NRC downplays these security failures by claiming that they always lead to positive improvements and overall security is adequate. Indeed, so sanguine are NRC officials that they are starting a pilot program to allow private reactor operators to conduct their own security evaluations. Since when have private companies voluntarily disclosed security shortcomings and made costly improvements to their security systems and personnel training?

Compare this gentlemanly security program with the fierce determination of a trained team of terrorists attacking a reactor without warning and taking it over long enough to disable the safety controls. At that point, a major Chernoble-syle disaster would be all but assured.

Now that the initial shock and sadness of Tuesday’s horror have given way to anger, many members of Congress are calling for aggressive military action directed against not only the responsible terrorist organization but against the nation providing them shelter and support. Though popular here at home, such action will not provide any protection against further terrorist actions. If anything, it may well intensify the cycle of attack and reprisal.

Whatever action is finally taken, the first objective should be to protect American citizens in the United States. But terrorists are not single minded nor stupid. Seeing a major security effort in process at the airports, they will simply look elsewhere for vulnerable targets — like the country’s nuclear power plants. These need protection — not by their owners but by government forces.

The sad truth is we cannot guard everything in America all the time against terrorist attack. The only realistic hope to reduce the danger of future attacks lies not in violent reprisals by American forces, but in positive preventive programs, taken in concert with other nations to attack the root causes of terrorism by political and economic means.

Only by alleviating abject poverty and hopelessness in the poorest nations in the world can we eliminate the spirit that breeds terrorists — that sense that even death is preferable to life under unbearable conditions. This will not be an easy or inexpensive challenge. But it is far less costly than the perpetual cycle of attack and reprisal and with targets like nuclear reactors to aim at.

Carroll, a retired rear admiral, served as director of U. S. military operations in Europe and the Middle East.


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