Federal Oversight Agency Finds NRC Minimizes Terrorist Problems

By Published On: October 11, 2003

Federal requirements to stop a terrorist attack on nuclear plants aren?t strong enough, according to a US General Accounting Office (GAO) report released last week. The GAO questioned the effectiveness of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?s (NRC) anti-terrorist actions and oversight for nuclear plant owners?such as Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison. The report used anecdotal information but didn?t name which nuclear facilities are the most at risk. The GAO noted, for instance, that in simulated terrorist attacks on facilities, up to a year’s notice was given and in 20 percent of the simulations plant owners increased the number of guards. Anti-nuclear activists said such a simulation took place in November 2000 at Edison?s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) and make-believe terrorists were able to take over the plant despite early warnings. The NRC admitted that at the time, SONGS staff were keenly aware of being watched, rather than being surprised by the simulated attack. At California?s other operating nuclear facility, Diablo Canyon, the possibility of terrorist attack generated a lot controversy in San Luis Obispo, the town near the plant. During hearings held in March with the city and the NRC regarding new dry-cask radioactive fuel storage, nuclear regulators would not allow the terrorist issue to be part of formal proceedings but entertained a town council-type forum on the matter to allow nearby residents to present their positions. Because the issue was not part of a formal hearing, the NRC does not have to consider concerns over terrorist threats to the radioactive waste facilities. Although the GAO questions the effectiveness of anti-terrorist activities, they have become a relatively expensive part of utilities? revenue requirements. For Edison and PG&E, nuclear plant anti-terrorist programs accounted for an initial $30 million in spending in the last year for each operating nuclear facility?SONGS and Diablo Canyon?with an additional $10 million per year in ongoing costs, according to California Public Utilities Commission records. In response to the report, the NRC said that it has increased the realism of terrorist simulations, although the GAO maintains that the commission has yet to institute new simulation programs. The NRC defended its use of non-cited violations, responding to the GAO that the practice ?fosters licensee self-identification and correction.? Three main areas of concern held by the federal oversight agency include: <b>?Non-cited? violations:</b> Here, for instance, visitors were allowed to go unescorted through facilities, which goes against protocol. The NRC, however, does not require the violation to be written up and does not demand proof that is has been corrected. ?This classification tends to minimize the seriousness of the problem,? the GAO stated. <b>No centralized NRC process:</b> The NRC lacks a comprehensive method to analyze problems and disseminate information of their corrections. <b>Questionable use of simulated terror attacks:</b> GAO distrusts the usefulness of security exercises that were in play prior to September 11, 2001. They were simulated battles led by mock forces from the Department of Energy against power plant employees. ?Forces generally used rubber weapons,? the GAO noted, dismissing relevance to a realistic attack. GAO recommends that the NRC restore the on-site terrorist simulation exercises it called off after 9/11, as well as restoring annual security inspections. The report can be found on the GAO?s Web site under docket number <i>GAO-03-752</i>.

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