NEW YORK — 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.
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.
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.
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.