Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - America's nuclear plants are unprepared for modern-day, large-scale terrorist attacks, according to one member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. But a government takeover of security at the nation's nuclear facilities is opposed both by the nuclear power industry and by the federal agency charged with regulating it.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) released Monday what he called "a blistering, scalding indictment of the inadequacies that exist" in both federal and private industry efforts to secure nuclear facilities.
"Black hole after black hole is described and left un-addressed," Markey said, announcing the issuance of his report. "Post 9/11, a nuclear safety agency that does not know and seems little interested in finding out the nationality of nuclear reactor workers or the level of resources being spent on security at these sensitive facilities is not doing its job."
Markey's staff compiled "Security Gap: A Hard Look at the Soft Spots in Our Civilian Nuclear Reactor Security" after reviewing more than 100 pages of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) correspondence with the congressman.
The report lists 12 "failures" by either the NRC, the industry, or both to properly defend nuclear facilities from terrorists. The items include:
- The NRC does not know how many foreign nationals are employed at nuclear reactors, and does not require adequate background checks of nuclear reactor employees;
- The NRC has rejected placing anti-aircraft capabilities at nuclear facilities, even though ... many reactors are located very close to airports; and
- Security exercises at nuclear reactor sites are inadequate, and sites continue to fail the exercises about 50 percent of the time.
Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the policy organization of the nuclear energy and technologies industry, says he's not surprised by the charges coming from "Congress' leading anti-nuclear ideologue."
"Our facilities are extremely safe and secure," Kerekes said. "Nuclear power plant employees, whether they're United States citizens or foreign nationals, must pass stringent security clearance, background checks, and are monitored daily. Those background checks include an FBI criminal background check."
The checks also include a full examination of an applicant's employment, educational, residential, and financial history. Any omissions or false statements are grounds for immediate disqualification.
Additionally, Kerekes says employees undergo routine drug and alcohol testing as well as psychological evaluations to identify factors that would help predict any terroristic or other criminal intent. Employees are also under constant supervision by trained observers looking for behavioral changes that might indicate the need for further scrutiny.
Sue Gagner, a public affairs officer with the NRC, echoed his confidence.
"The security at nuclear power plants was very strong before the events of September 11th, and it has been strengthened since then," she said.
"Some of the things that have been included in this augmented security have been additional security posts, heightened coordination with law enforcement and the National Guard, and limits on the access of vehicles to these sites," Gagner added.
Other measures imposed by NRC are "sensitive," according to an agency press release and are, therefore, not being discussed with the public.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, NRC immediately put all of the nation's nuclear facilities on their highest state of alert, where they have remained since.
The agency has issued some 30 directives to the entities it governs to implement "compensatory measures" for deficiencies discovered during inspections, which NRC says it also stepped up following the hijackings.
On February 26, 2002, the commission issued new security rules, which Gagner says simply made permanent the changes made in response to the attacks.
NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan, Jr., has taken a particular interest in refuting the call for anti-aircraft batteries at nuclear power plants.
In a March 6 speech, he responded sarcastically to critics, who he said, "had essentially been demanding that a corporal with a Stinger and a telephone line to the White House be deployed at each of the 63 commercial nuclear power plant sites. The corporal would presumably have orders to take down any commercial airliner whose trajectory the corporal didn't like, if in those few seconds he had to react he could get permission to fire. [That's] pretty amazing stuff."
NRC's official response to the anti-aircraft proposal was contained in a letter from Chairman Richard Meserve.
"The NRC sees no need to deploy anti-aircraft weaponry at any commercial nuclear facilities in the United States. After consultation with the Department of Defense, the Office of Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration, the Commission believes that there would be enormous command and control problems and a large potential for unintended consequences and collateral damage if such weaponry were deployed," Meserve wrote.
McGaffigan also disputes Markey's claim that nuclear sites "fail the [security] exercises about 50 percent of the time."
"These were not pass-fail exams," he said, "they were meant to identify weaknesses that needed to be corrected."
In the tests, called Operational Safeguards Response Evaluations (OSREs) the attacking force has intimate details of the plant's defenses and layout, and possesses all of the equipment needed to cause damage to the plant's reactor core.
"It is much like giving the St. Louis Rams [New England Patriot's Head Coach] Bill Belichek's defensive playbook before the Super Bowl, so that they know in advance how he plans to attack every St. Louis offensive formation and expecting the Patriots to still win the Super Bowl," McGaffigan explained.
"But with all these advantages to the mock terrorists, in individual drills the attacking force reached its target sets only 15 percent of the time, in 9 of 59 drills, in 15 OSREs conducted between April 2000 and August 2001," he said.
Reaching target sets does not equate to core damage, he added, because operators still have the ability to recover from many types of damage.
"And core damage does not equate to a radiological disaster, as Three Mile Island showed," McGaffigan concluded.
Kerekes believes that Markey's anti-nuclear activism is behind the report's release.
"If Congressman Markey devoted nearly half the energy to actually touring nuclear power plants than he does to bashing them, he would be persuaded to the contrary of what his [current] position is," he argued.
Markey is the original House sponsor of the Nuclear Security Act of 2001 (H.R. 3382), which would place the security of the nation's 103 privately operated nuclear power plants in the hands of the federal government. Nevada Democrat Harry Reid has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.
A primary provision of the bill would "establish a nuclear security force, the members of which shall be employees of the [Nuclear Regulatory] Commission, to provide for the security of all sensitive nuclear facilities."
But Kerekes says he would "challenge anyone to find a more robust protective structure" than that currently in place at the nation's nuclear power plants.
"We have a total of 5,000 security officers, 70 percent of whom have prior military, law enforcement, or industrial security experience, he explained. "We really have in place a SWAT-like, paramilitary force."
James Kallstrom, former assistant director of the FBI and head of New York State's Office of Public Security has remarked that, based on his assessment, a terrorist attack on the Indian Point, N.Y. nuclear plant "would result in a lot of dead terrorists."
McGaffigan publicly applauded Kallstrom's comments, and questioned those who think U.S. nuclear plants are "soft targets."
"No responsible person would make that claim," he concluded. "We have a firm foundation on which to build and we will continue to insure that these facilities are the best defended and most physically hardened facilities in our critical infrastructure."
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