Since last September's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the US nuclear industry has undergone the most intensive security crackdown in its history.
But significant chinks in the armor remain.
Security guards at several commercial facilities complain that they are undertrained: In some cases, training exercises consist of little more than facing mock adversaries with rubber guns and whistles. Some security personnel say they practice with weapons once a year for two or three hours to requalify. Few have experience shooting at moving targets. Others admit that they are uncertain whether they can use deadly force to prevent an attack, because deadly-force rules and permissible-weapons regulations are set at the state level.
And, unlike federal nuclear facilities, no commercial plant has undergone mock attacks designed to field test security improvements in more than a year.
Compounding the problem: Guards at several plants say they're underpaid and driven to exhausting amounts of overtime by plant owners unwilling to hire extra security personnel.
These concerns are highlighted in a study released Thursday by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan government watchdog group in Washington. It concludes that, given the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the potential threat nuclear plants are faced with is far greater than the one they are presently prepared for.
"If you equate the Department of Energy to the NFL" on nuclear security preparations, many of the plants in the study "are junior high school," says Peter Stockton, an author of the report, who was a special assistant for nuclear security under former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.
The results suggest that a significant number of plants "have done the least amount required to protect the American public from a suicidal terrorist attack" on a plant, says Danielle Brian, executive director of the group.
But the industry hasn't been idle. It has spent millions on security. In addition, 1,000 security officers have been added to 103 reactors nationwide, bringing the total to around 6,000, according to Steve Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents nuclear facilities.
Indeed, the problems the report cites are not universal, Mr. Stockton acknowledges. The scope of the report is limited: Twenty-two guards from 24 commercial reactors at 13 sites across the country, including a member of the National Guard protecting one plant, stepped forward to share their concerns. They were prompted to speak out following the publication of a report by the Project by Government Oversight in October that dealt with security concerns at Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear facilities.
A top concern for many guards in this new report is that they fear they lack the firepower to deal with terrorists armed with automatic weapons or sniper rifles. Indeed, in some states, they would not be allowed to use deadly force against someone planting explosives. And many states prohibit the use of automatic weapons on site.
All too often, Stockton says, training exercises degenerate into arguments over who did and didn't get hit, because they don't train with the high-tech laser-tag equipment used by DOE security personnel in training exercises.
The effectiveness of a nuclear plant's security is crucial: All too often, exercises have shown that attacks end one way or the other before outside help arrives. That realization led Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to reconstitute an in-house SWAT team it had disbanded for budget reasons.
"We found at least two sites that have ramped up security significantly. They've tripled their guard forces," Stockton says. The key differences in these instances are plant managers that have hired highly qualified staff people with backgrounds in the Special Forces, "not just former bomber pilots."
The report's release comes at a time of heightened interest in nuclear-plant security.
On Monday night, legislators in New York's Westchester County unanimously backed a resolution asking that the reactors at the Indian Point nuclear power plant along the Hudson River north of New York City be shut down, citing fears of terrorist attacks. There is also activity on Capitol Hill driven in no small part by President Bush's acknowledgment last January that US forces in Afghanistan had uncovered Al Qaeda documents highlighting potential targets in the US, including nuclear plants.
A bipartisan bill before the Senate, sponsored by Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, would require that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission set hiring and training standards for plant security staff. The measure would also mandate that a federal security coordinator be posted at each plant. Additionally, it calls for the use of deadly force against intruders at all plants, as well as allowing the use of automatic weapons by nuclear-plant security officers.