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Nuclear-plant security: Is it enough?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 4, 2006


If the terror attacks of 9/11 taught one lesson, it was that America must make itself less vulnerable to attack by air - perhaps nowhere more urgently than at the nation's 103 nuclear power plants, given their potential for inflicting massive casualties and destruction if hit by a plane loaded with fuel.

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Yet 4-1/2 years later, those plants are little safer from air attack, say critics. And squabbling has set in over what the security standards should be.

Some antiterror experts are concerned the current criteria do not require nuclear plants to be protected against a threat equal to the one posed by the 9/11 hijackers, particularly if they attack again by air. A report to be released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office is also critical of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), finding that it has not increased standards enough to ensure plants are genuinely secure, but only as much as industry officials believed was necessary.

Those officials counter that nuclear power plants are already the nation's best-protected critical infrastructure. They say the government's current security requirements for nuclear power plants, which are designed to protect from ground assaults, are already too burdensome. As for an assault by air, the industry is relying on the Transportation Security Administration - the government agency designed to prevent terrorists from hijacking another commercial jet.

After tightening requirements for plant security in February 2002, the NRC is now reviewing those standards before making them permanent. Known as the Design Basis Threat (DBT), they're considered "sensitive" information and not made public. But enough is known about them that they're prompting fresh scrutiny, particularly because the nuclear industry is poised for its first major expansion in a generation.

"If the industry wants nuclear to have a viable future and substantially expand its footprint in the US, it has to invest some serious money in security," says Charles Ferguson, science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and coauthor of "The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism." "If there's any kind of attack on one of these facilities, it could torpedo any plans for future expansion."

Underlying this security debate are two diametrically opposed views of nuclear power plants' likelihood of becoming a terrorist target and the amount of destruction that would result if one were attacked.

Critics say that terrorists consider nuclear power plants to be top targets because they could cause mass casualties, particularly if they're close to a large population center like New York City. They note the 9/11 commission report found that Mohammed Atta, who piloted one of the planes into the World Trade Center, had "considered targeting a nuclear facility," as did Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

The nuclear power industry says that nuclear facilities are so well fortified and have so many redundant backup systems that there's little probability of mass casualties. After 9/11, the industry spent more than $1.25 billion upgrading its security operations and increased its armed guard force from 5,000 to more than 8,000.

Stephen Floyd, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in Washington, acknowledges that nuclear power plants are potential targets. But he argues they're less likely to be hit than other, less-fortified critical infrastructure, like a chemical plant.