Nukes Still Not Safe from 9/11-Style Attack, Says Watchdog

By Published On: November 20, 2004

Federal regulators must revise their standards for protecting nuclear facilities from potential terrorist assaults and other high-danger accidents, according to a petition by industry watchdog groups. Published in the <i>Federal Register</i> (volume 69, number 215) and released for public comment this week, the petition urges the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to adopt security guidelines that are more responsive to destruction wrought by terrorists. Spearheaded by the Los Angeles?based Committee to Bridge the Gap (CBG), the move comes on the heels of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announcing his resignation this week. The secretary has been a staunch defender of atomic energy. The rulemaking petition asks regulators to encourage nuclear plant owners to prepare for possible attacks?by land, water, or air?equal in force and coordination to those carried out by 19 terrorists on September 11, 2001. Another request calls for more tangible protection: a network of steel I-beams that would ring each nuclear facility and be interlaced with steel cabling. The system, referred to as ?Beamhenge? in the filing, would cause planes that are set on a deliberate crash course with a nuclear facility to be ?torn up? and thus shield sensitive areas from harm. Such preventive measures are long overdue, according to Paul Gunter, director of the reactor watchdog project for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS). ?You?d think that three years after September 11, the nuclear industry?with all its inherent radiological danger?would be protected from attacks through the air,? he said. ?That?s not the case.? In Gunter?s view, the nuclear industry believes that security measures of this type are ?someone else?s responsibility.? He noted that despite the airplane-led attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, aircraft are still free to travel over areas such as Pacific Gas & Electric?s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant and Southern California Edison?s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, its member utilities and nuke owners pass the requisite security test. The institute released a statement in late October declaring that 103 nuclear power plants operating in 31 states have met the NRC?s October 29 deadline for activating ?more stringent security measures.? The size of paramilitary forces used at nuke sites has increased, as well as the number of security posts, the distances by which vehicles must be kept from site facilities, and the number of site patrols. Nuclear regulators insist that all threats, including those posed by potential terrorists, are considered under the NRC?s review of nuclear plant safety. Materials on the commission?s Web site recall that after 9/11, the agency called on plant owners to shore up physical protection of facilities, as well as improving preparations for emergency and performing safety studies. These and other prompts have made nuclear plants ?among the most robust and well-protected civilian facilities in the country,? the commission claims. The Committee to Bridge the Gap?s petition maintains that even nuke regulators concede that plant owners are still not required to guard against airborne attacks or prepare for a September 11?sized force of marauders. Moreover, the degree of threat for which nuclear facility owners must plan?a level determined by regulators?remains secret. ?Given the controversial history of cost-driven nuclear security, there is no public confidence? that the threat determination is in keeping with modern terrorism onslaughts, according to the petition. Also before nuclear regulators is an existing petition asking the NRC to address the vulnerability of spent-fuel pools at U.S. reactor sites. Petitioners, including Gunter?s NIRS, say that at 32 nuclear power plants, spent fuel is stored on the roof of reactor buildings, which could lead to tens of thousands of deaths if airplanes were to crash into the facilities and accidentally ignite the radioactive waste. The petition for emergency action would have the NRC encourage reinforcement of the structures housing the spent fuel or require that noncompliant reactors be closed. The commission maintains that spent-fuel pools are hard to damage and that even if they are compromised, the spread of potentially lethal materials from the pools is taken into account by emergency preparedness plans already in use. ?Based on analysis performed to date, staff has not identified any spent fuel pool accident issues? that would necessitate changes in the NRC?s planning process, according to on-line information kept by the agency regarding potential terrorist activities. Gunter said the petition, delivered in August, has been officially accepted by the commission and is under review. Comments on the Committee to Bridge the Gap petition for rulemaking are due January 24, 2005.

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