At US Nuclear Plants, Tight Security Getting Tighter ; in Wake of Terrorist Attacks, Some Question Whether Government, Not Utilities, Should Take Lead on Security

By Peter N. Spotts writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

At US Nuclear Plants, Tight Security Getting Tighter ; in Wake of Terrorist Attacks, Some Question Whether Government, Not Utilities, Should Take Lead on Security


Peter N. Spotts writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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