Nuclear-plant security: Is it enough?
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According to knowledgeable sources within the industry and the NRC, the upgraded DBT requires that plants be able to repel an attack from five or six well-armed terrorists, possibly working in conjunction with an insider or two. That's twice as many as they had to handle before 9/11. But the plants are not required to be protected against an attack by a rocket- propelled grenade or a large truck bomb, or to provide antiaircraft artillery or advance radar-based protection against an air attack.Skip to next paragraph
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Critics say plants should be protected against a threat at least equivalent to the one on 9/11, when 19 well-trained terrorists attacked from the air. "Because of the lame DBT, the threat that they have to guard against is totally unrealistic. The security is nowhere near as robust as it should be," says Peter Stockton, a senior investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group. "If they don't have to be to the level of 9/11, they should at least be able to repel a squad size force [of about 12 or 13]."
While the industry won't comment on the specifics of the DBT, it says it already meets the 9/11 threshold. Mr. Floyd of the NEI, the lobbying arm of the nation's private nuclear power plants, notes that the 19 hijackers did not attack en masse; rather, three to four terrorists commandeered each plane for four separate attacks. He also says the current requirements, such as the thickness of the containment walls around the reactors and spent fuel-rod pools, already provide enough protection against RPGs. And he says those walls are thick enough to sustain a head-on attack from a jet, although that's contested by critics.
"Through the FAA and the North American Defense [Aerospace] Defense Command, they do have procedures and protocols in place now for interdicting flights much better than they did prior to 9/11," says Floyd. "There's a fair amount of increased protection there."
But critics say this denies the risks the country faces. For instance, the Indian Point nuclear power plant is 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan. A 2004 report by the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists found that if it were attacked, in a worst-case scenario as many as 44,000 people could be killed by a massive release of radiation.
"Nuclear plants are devices that are filled with absolutely immense amounts of radioactivity, and it stays inside the reactor only so long as the coolant operates," says Daniel Hirsh, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a California-based nuclear watchdog group. "That gives the terrorists the ability to use very primitive technologies to turn our nuclear plants against us, very similar to the use of box cutters on jumbo jets."
The industry says such thinking is alarmist. "There's nobody who's stronger than we are," Floyd says. "If they're being critical that the nuclear industry cannot totally withstand a terrorist attack, I shudder to think of what that means for the rest of the critical infrastructure that hasn't done a tenth of what we have done."
The NRC is expected to finalize the upgraded security requirements by the end of the year. "The NRC is very serious about security," says Holly Harrington, spokeswoman for the commission.