The most extensive security crackdown in the history of US nuclear power is under way, and some experts suggest it could result in the federal government becoming the primary guardian of plant security.
Currently, the responsibility for defending nuclear plants from sabotage by attackers other than "enemies of the United States" lies with the utilities. But in the wake of recent terrorist attacks that used hijacked airplanes, some argue for a federal takeover of security operations.
Last week, President Bush announced a similar step regarding airport security - giving government, not airlines, the lead role in screening passengers and baggage.
Whether nuclear-plant security will follow this path is unclear. What is certain is that old assumptions about plant safeguards are being rethought from the concrete foundations up.
"If possession of 103 reactors gives a potential adversary 103 quasi-radiological weapons to use against us, and if the industry seems incapable of protecting them ... someone's going to have to protect them. It may have to be the federal government or military," says Daniel Hirsch, president of the nuclear-watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap, based in Los Angeles.
So far, the heightened state of alert at the nation's nuclear plants has been precautionary. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it knows of no "credible" threats on plant safety.
But at the NRC's request, utilities have beefed up security patrols, clamped down on access to plants, are reviewing and rerunning background checks on employees and contractors. And concerns remain that plants are very likely to be on some terrorist group's target list.
Under existing regulations, utilities must defend nuclear plants against the theft of radioactive material and against sabotage. But the types of sabotage attacks they must prepare for are few, and none mirror the type and scale of attack the US experienced last month.
The result is a sweeping NRC reevaluation of the security procedures the agency has established for the industry.
"The threat characteristics are different now," says Alan Madison, who oversees reactor safeguards for the agency.
From a nuts-and-bolts standpoint, nuclear power plants contain the most hardened civilian structures in the country. Reactors are enclosed in steel-and-concrete containment buildings designed to withstand tornados, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Plants have backup sets of safety systems. Under some conditions, reactors will shut themselves down automatically.
Yet containment structures were not designed to withstand a collision from a large airliner, NRC officials say. Indeed, no engineering studies have been done on how the buildings would fare in such a crash.
Moreover, even though a reactor may be shut down, its core must be cooled to prevent the heat of radioactive decay from growing to the point where the fuel melts. In addition, plants are storing up to 30 years' worth of highly radioactive spent fuel, which must be cooled.
Thus, a determined attack needn't strike directly at a reactor building to trigger a chain of events that could lead to widespread release of radioactivity. The objective could focus instead on "softer" systems, whose destruction would disable the plant's cooling systems.
To discourage attacks, armed guards patrol the grounds, aided by high-tech surveillance equipment. Employees and visitors must clear background checks. Access often requires a finger- or hand-print. Parcels pass through x-ray scanners, while workers and visitors must pass security checkpoints with metal detectors.
Yet these measures have not always
been sufficient to ward off an assault from a small squad of "attackers" during NRC-run security drills (of which plants are given advance warning). During a set of mock attacks on 11 plants since January 2000, members of the assault teams achieved their objectives at six facilities, says David Orrik, an NRC official who ran the drills. Results have been similar since the testing program began in the 1980s.
Some NRC officials hold that when an attacking team reaches its goal, the plant could have been destroyed. But others in the agency and industry say results have often failed to account for actions reactor operators might take to limit damage. "An inconclusive result does not equal failure," argues Lynnette Hendricks of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group.
The industry has designed an alternative testing program in which plants conduct exercises every three years, with smaller-scale drills in between.
Critics of the proposed change find it troubling because utilities, with a vested interest in "winning," would design and conduct the drills. The NRC would continue to oversee the process and analyze results. The agency was to test this new approach, but the project was postponed by the current security reevaluation.
In the current environment, some watchdog groups say that needed changes include, for now, the use of National Guard troops to help protect nuclear plants, as they are helping to protect US airports.