Commercial U.S. nuclear reactors remain vulnerable to terrorist threats more than a decade after the 2001 attacks spurred added safety measures, according to an independent study prepared for the Defense Department.
The combined public and private security provided at the power plants “is inadequate to defend against a maximum, credible, non-state adversary,” the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas at Austin said in the report released today.
“This leaves private-sector facilities less protected than government facilities that face similar risks of theft of fissile material or radiological sabotage, which makes no sense,” according to the report.
After terrorists flew four commercial airliners into buildings in New York and Washington, and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission required all reactor-owners to bolster security. The measures included increased patrols, vehicle checks and additional barriers to prevent intrusion. Operators also had to deal with assaults from the air and by water, according to the NRC website.
“The report contains no new information or insight” and is a “rehash of arguments from a decade ago” when the NRC was developing post-Sept. 11 rules, David McIntyre, a spokesman, said in an e-mail. “The NRC has strengthened security requirements for commercial nuclear power plants and remains confident that these important facilities are adequately protected.”
The steps taken by the NRC still aren’t enough to protect against a major terrorist attack because they deal only with threats that a plant is designed to handle, known as the “design-basis threat,” according to the Texas study.
“None of the 104 U.S. power reactors is required to protect against a 9/11-style attack,” Alan Kuperman, the project’s coordinator and study co-author, said on a conference call with reporters.
While the report didn’t mention specific reactors, a statement accompanying the study listed units in coastal areas that it said are vulnerable to attacks by boat. They included PG&E Corp. (PCG:US)’s Diablo Canyon plant in California, Dominion Resources (D:US) Inc.’s Surry facility in Virginia and Entergy Corp. (ETR:US)’s Indian Point units north of New York City.
Kuperman said the study for the Pentagon was generic, focusing on the adequacy of design-basis threats. The individual reactors were added in the statement to make it more “user friendly” when it released to the public.
Both the NRC and the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based industry group for reactor owners, disputed that those plants are more vulnerable than others.
All commercial reactors in the U.S. protect against the same water-borne threats, David Kline, NEI’s director for nuclear security, said in an interview. The threat requirement for reactors is based on intelligence and reviewed periodically with input from government officials, he said.
“We understand that this report was developed by academia,” Kline said. “I’m always concerned when folks have an unclassified report and claim to have all the answers in it.” Classified documents contain more detailed information about threats, he said.
The three agencies responsible for oversight of the nation’s nuclear facilities -- the NRC, and Energy and Defense departments -- should have the same standards to guard against attacks, according to the Texas study.
Risks include the possibility that an intruder could deactivate a nuclear unit’s security systems, drain the cooling pool to expose radioactive waste, or use rocket-propelled grenades to overcome a facility’s defenses, according to the study. It also said terrorists could fly an airplane or drive an explosive-laden boat into a reactor.
“The fact that future power plant designs must protect against aircraft attacks is an acknowledgment by the NRC that the threat is credible,” the report said. The threat should be included in the design requirements for existing reactors as well as new units, it said.
The NRC has said on its website that the best approach to dealing with aircraft threats is by strengthening airport and airline security and deployment of anti-aircraft weapons would be a decision to be made by the Defense Department.
“Since 9/11, it’s much harder to take advantage of a commercial airliner in a hijacking,” said NEI’s Kline. The group doesn’t believe the impact of a large plane would trigger a large radioactive release, he said.
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