Seven years have past since the attacks on the World trade Center and the Pentagon and now a little more than four months remain in the Bush Presidency. The American homeland hasn’t been attacked again since that horrific day, but if terrorists were to target a nuclear power plant would the nuclear industry be ready?
The Bush administration’s nuclear regulators have forced the industry’s 104 nuclear reactors to add more guards and guns on the ground at nuclear plant sites. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has failed to adequately address the threat to both new and existing nuclear power plants and the radioactive wastes they produce.
After September 11th, the NRC revisited the level of protection afforded nuclear plants. The nuclear industry opposed changes that would have placed nuclear security guards under federal authority and lobbied the NRC to set the security standard, known as the design basis threat, as low as possible.
Even after the 9-11 attacks, the nuclear industry argued that it shouldn’t be required to defend against terrorists since they were “enemies of the state.” And unfortunately the Bush Administration’s NRC agreed with the industry. As a result, the NRC didn’t set the new security standard based upon the actual threat to nuclear plants. Instead, then NRC Chairman Diaz, who had claimed that nuclear plants were best defended from an airliner attack at the airport, based the new security standard on what a private security force could be expected to defend against.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration’s NRC did not base the new security standard upon on the force, size and capabilities of the terrorists that have threatened U.S. reactors. It based the new security standard upon the capabilities of nuclear industry’s guard force! If this nonsensical approach to defending nuclear power plants wasn’t bad enough, recent revelations of nuclear plant guards sleeping on the job and the lack of NRC oversight only serve to heighten concerns about security.
Last September, CBS News broke a story about sleeping guards at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. A worker at the plant had informed the NRC Region I office that security guards were sleeping on the job. However, the NRC failed to act on the information when the nuclear plant owner, Exelon, said it found no evidence. So CBS News aired videotape of the guards sleeping. You can view the CBS story here:
The NRC has since scrambled and has tried to repair the damage to its reputation by fining the nuclear corporation; but it has also threatened the whistleblower who filmed the sleeping guards with a violation of the Patriot Act for taking pictures inside a nuclear plant!
Congressman John Dingle (D- MI) who oversees the NRC said that, “(t)he NRC’s stunning failure to act on credible allegations of sleeping security guards, coupled with its unwillingness to protect the whistleblower who uncovered the problem, raises troubling questions.” It should, when it comes to nuclear whistleblowers the NRC has had a long history of shooting the messenger.
Congressman Dingle isn’t the only one to take issue with the NRC’s handling of the sleeping security guards. The NRC’s Inspector General also found fault with the agency’s handling of the allegations. The IG found that NRC Region I failed to follow proper procedures dealing with allegations by whistleblowers and merely called Exelon to see if security guards were sleeping at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant. The NRC IG report can be found here:
Security guards have also been caught sleeping at Entergy’s Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, 24 miles north of New York City and at the FPL’s Turkey Point nuclear plant 25 miles South of Miami, FL.
So, how many terrorists can sleeping guards defend against?
Unfortunately, this amazing lack of regulatory rigor is emblematic of the Bush administration’s NRC since 9-11. In order to force nuclear regulators to better defend nuclear reactors and their wastes, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-MA) introduced legislation last month to correct the most glaring inadequacies.
In the House of Representatives, the legislation has been introduced as H.R. 6816, “The Nuclear Facility and Materials Security Act of 2008.”
The proposed legislation would address many of the gaps in the nuclear security left by the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to regulate the nuclear industry. If enacted H.R. 6818 would:
- Require that any new reactor built in the U.S.- be designed to withstand the impact of a large commercial aircraft;
- Require that spent fuel from nuclear reactors be stored in the safest manner possible while in the spent fuel pool, for the fuel to be moved to dry storage as soon as possible, and upgrading the security requirements for spent fuel storage facilities;
- Require the distribution of anti-radiation pills (potassium iodide or KI pills) to communities within 20 miles of our nation’s nuclear power plants;
- Require that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission abide by a recent court decision that directed that before new or revised licenses for nuclear reactors are granted, that the potential consequences of an act of terrorism be considered; and
- that the highest-risk radiation sources that could be used to make a dirty bomb be equipped with location tracking technology and requiring less dangerous technologies to be used where possible.
What is truly disheartening is that this legislation is even necessary seven years after 9-11. You’d have thought that a responsible regulator would have already addressed these threats, especially after being warned that terrorists wanted to turn reactors into pre positioned weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, since 9-11, we’ve had a President and an administration that would rather lie about threats to and posed by nuclear power plants than actually defend the public health and safety.
Hopefully the next president and new leadership at the NRC will be more responsible.