Nuclear Denial

Suan Q. Stranahan
Mother Jones
January 24, 2002

Security requirements for plants like Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island have barely changed since the 1970s. About 6 p.m. on October 17, five weeks after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, officials at the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) telephoned the control room at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with some chilling information. The intelligence community had intercepted a “credible” threat against the reactor.

As it happened, the plant was in a particularly vulnerable stage of its operating cycle: It had been shut down for refueling and the massive steel cover of the reactor vessel-the final barrier protecting the highly radioactive fuel core-was open. Spent fuel was being moved to a warehouse far less secure than the reactor itself, and hundreds of temporary contractors were swarming about the plant.

While plant operators scrambled to secure the sprawling facility, state and federal law enforcement officials raced to the island. Two nearby airports were ordered shut down and military aircraft were sent aloft to patrol.

By the next morning, the threat was reassessed and deemed “noncredible.” The alert was canceled. Still, the event marked a watershed. For the first time, the nuclear industry had been forced to confront a fact it has actively denied since its earliest days-that its reactors are highly vulnerable to terrorist acts.

For more than 20 years, government auditors and independent watchdogs have warned that an attack resulting in a massive release of radiation could cause tens of thousands of casualties and billions in property damage. Yet despite evidence of widespread security problems at the nation’s nuclear plants, operators and the NRC have downplayed the risk. “The nuclear industry and regulators have engaged in a long process of denial,” says Paul L. Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington public-interest organization.

Within hours of the September 11 attacks, utility officials were telling the public that reactor buildings could withstand the crash of a fully loaded jetliner. Less than two weeks later, the NRC announced that plant designers had, in fact, not “specifically contemplated attacks by aircraft such as Boeing 757s and 767s.” Industry representatives and the NRC ignored suggestions that National Guard troops and antiaircraft weaponry be dispatched to nuclear plants (though the governors of at least eight states have since independently ordered Guard troops to reactors). The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group, assured Americans that “each nuclear plant has a well-armed security force trained to defend against armed assaults and acts of sabotage.”

In fact, the industry’s security record is anything but reassuring. As far back as 1977-two years before the near-meltdown accident at Three Mile Island-the General Accounting Office noted that protection against sabotage at nuclear plants was “at best inadequate.”

NRC documents also show a long history of security lapses at reactors. At one nuclear plant, inspectors found the entry code taped up next to a door buzzer; at others, records were falsified and unauthorized personnel had access to off-limits areas. Perhaps most remarkable, in federal tests designed to assess terrorism preparedness, guards at nuclear plant sites have failed to repel pretend saboteurs almost half the time.

Critics who raise security concerns have long been regarded as “antinuclear or delusional,” says Peter Bradford, who served as an NRC commissioner during the 1979 accident and now lectures on energy policy at Yale University. “The consequences [of sabotage or an accident] are so large and the safeguards so inadequate that the only way to be comfortable is to say it can’t happen. Yet the events of September 11 put what can and canÕt happen in quite a different light.”

Today’s NRC rules require plants to have only five guards trained to repel intruders on duty at any given time. And the attack scenario used to evaluate preparedness has remained unchanged since the mid-1970s: Several (the exact number is classified) intruders arrive on foot, carrying handheld weapons, sometimes with help from an “insider” acting alone. The scenario assumes that the intruders will not be willing to inflict mass casualties, that intelligence agencies will have advance knowledge of the attack, and that there will be no more than one inside supporter. The only modification to the security rule was made in 1994, when the NRC told plant owners to install concrete barriers at their gates. That change came 20 months after a truck bomb severely damaged the World Trade Center.

Even when judged by those limited rules, reactor security forces have frequently failed. In exercises conducted by the NRC between 1992 and 1998, guards at 27 of 57 nuclear plants failed to keep mock intruders from inflicting simulated damage sufficient to put the nuclear core in jeopardy-this despite the fact that reactor owners got 6 to 12 months’ advance notice of the visits, and until recently were allowed to beef up their security staffs to respond to the attacks. (One intruder bypassed the detection system seven times simply by crawling or jumping past a checkpoint.)

The testing program has drawn frequent criticism from industry representatives, who say preparing for the mock raids is too costly. In 1998, the NRC quietly canceled the exercises but reinstated them after protests from citizens groups and a member of Congress. Until September 11, the agency was working on a new plan that would have turned inspections over to the industry. That change is on hold while the NRC conducts a “top to bottom” review of nuclear security, says commission chairman Richard Meserve. The commission has not said when it expects that review to be completed.

But a growing number of nuclear watchdog groups aren’t convinced the NRC will make the required changes on its own. In October, environmentalists petitioned the NRC to re-valuate plans to increase the amount of highly radioactive spent fuel stored at Connecticut’s Millstone reactor: A terrorist attack on the facility, they argued, could trigger a radiation release that would contaminate “thousands of square kilometers of land.” Industry representatives dismissed that scenario as “fantastic.”

Meanwhile, Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has introduced legislation that would require tougher security standards. He also favors use of National Guard troops at all reactors, a move the industry has resisted.

If meaningful improvements are to be made in nuclear security, argues Markey, Congress must demand them. “The nuclear industry believes accidents will not happen, and they’ve extended that mentality now to say that terrorist attacks won’t be successful,” he says. “The threat is real, but they still don’t get it.”

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