Urgent Action Needed to Protect U.S. Nuclear Plants from Terrorist Attack

Existing Security Requirements Grossly Inadequate


Statement by



1637 Butler Avenue, Suite 203

Los Angeles, CA 90025

(310) 478-0829


There is a realistic concern that there may be additional terrorist attacks in the United States and that nuclear power plants may be a target, which could result in massive release of radioactivity. Security requirements at these reactors are grossly inadequate to deal with the magnitude of the threat evidenced September 11, and our efforts over the last 15 years to get the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to fix the problems have been unsuccessful. Last Friday, the NRC once again declined to take the steps necessary to protect reactors from terrorist attack. We call on the President and the Congress now to act before it is too late.


Each of the nations 103 nuclear plants contains in it an extraordinary amount of radioactivity. An attack by a truck bomb, insider, armed group, or hijacked airliner at one of our civilian nuclear facilities could result in sufficient radioactivity released to produce tens or hundreds of thousands of latent cancers and contaminate hundreds of miles downwind. A Sandia National Laboratory report concluded that a successful truck bomb attack at a civilian nuclear plant could result in unacceptable damage, i.e., a meltdown. Containment structures were not designed to withstand a 757 crash of the sort witnessed on September 11. Furthermore, soft targets at these sites necessary for keeping the fuel cooled and preventing melting are of special concern.


These are the grim facts, made exquisitely dangerous by the new world in which we have awakened since the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies. As Dr. Bennett Ramberg, Research Director at the Committee to Bridge the Gap, noted in his seminal scholarly book on the subject, Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy: An Unrecognized Military Peril (University of California Press: 1984), a nation that possesses nuclear power plants in effect gives to its adversaries, be they nation-states or subnational groups, a quasi-nuclear capability to use against it. Low-tech assaults, such as the use of truck bombs or airliners hijacked using box-cutters, if employed against reactors, can wreak radioactive devastation on a scale too frightening too contemplate. Yet contemplate it we must, given the nature of the world in which we live.


For 15 years our two organizations have been warning the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that its quarter-century-old security regulations for protecting civilian nuclear facilities from terrorist attack are woefully inadequate and outdated. They require, for a nuclear power plant, a very small number of guards and the ability to repel no more than a very small group of attackers, entering as a single team and with artificial constraints on weapons and explosives, and the involvement of only one insider. Until recently, when our repeated petitions were finally granted in part, no protection whatsoever against truck bombs was required, although the rule adopted is weaker than we would have preferred. No security measures against attack by boat or air, as just occurred in New York and Washington, are required under NRC rules. Aside from the truck bomb rule, the NRC security regulations have not been upgraded since the 1970s, despite the dramatic increase in the magnitude of the terrorist risk.


The NRC has long argued that stronger security regulations were not required for domestic nuclear facilities and transport because of the alleged lack of any domestic threat, the likelihood of advanced warning if a threat materialized, the relative lack of sophistication in terrorist attacks, and a supposed reluctance of terrorists to create large numbers of casualties. The World Trade Center/Pentagon coordinated attacks demonstrate that all of these assumptions no longer hold, if ever they did.


Those attacks apparently involved far more terrorists than the NRCs Design Basis Threat (DBT) contemplates, acting as four independent teams (only one attacking team is contemplated in the DBT), and employing a high level of sophistication and planning. Additionally, the attacks occurred without any advance warning recognized as such by the responsible agencies. Furthermore, current regulations state that reactors need not have security systems designed at protecting against attacks by enemies of the United States, be they individuals or states.


In addition, many reactors in the country do not have security systems in place sufficient to meet even the very weak regulations. The NRCs Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation (OSRE) Program tests reactor security by running black hat mock attacks. Even with six months advance warning of when the test attack will occur, roughly half the reactors in the country have failed these tests. The response by NRC and industry to this dismal record was to attempt to kill the OSRE program entirely two years ago, and now, having had to back off because of bad publicity, they are attempting to convert it into an industry-run self-regulation activity.


Additionally, certain industry proposals could significantly increase the nuclear terrorism targets and riskparticularly the push for the construction of a new generation of pebble bed reactors, made of combustible graphite like Chernobyl and no containment structure, and the prospect of thousands of shipments of high level waste across the country to Yucca Mountain. [We note, in this regard, recent troubling press reports of the arrest of someone suspected of links to the recent attacks, a man who had a license to drive trucks carrying radioactive materials.]


The NRC response to the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks has to date been less than forceful in light of the extraordinary situation we face. Rather than order immediate activation of emergency security plans, it merely recommended that reactor operators consider doing so, further asserting there was no evidence of any threat. Troops or national guard apparently have not been called out to protect the nations 103 reactors. Furthermore, we understand the airspace over civil reactors is not restricted.


For a decade and a half, we have worked quietly to try to get the NRC to act responsibly and protect these facilities adequately. We submitted petitions for rulemaking, met with Commissioners and their staffs, submitted scholarly studies. With one partial exception, a truck bomb rule of insufficient effectiveness, we have failed. We have acted in this fashion all these years because of the great sensitivity of this issue, and the concern that one didnt want to give terrorists ideas they did not already have.


The horrendous events of September 11 make clear that our country is facing adversaries well able to identify this nations vulnerabilities and extremely willing to exploit them to produce massive loss of life. The vulnerability of our nuclear plants is no secret. Officials have warned that there may be more attacks planned; one need not be a rocket scientist to figure out that nuclear plants may be the next target, topping in destructive effect the most recent tragedy. Officials have warned that other cells may have been pre-emplaced in the U.S. months or years ago, as were these that carried out the September 11 attacks. Could some be working in nuclear plants here, or planning external attacks against them?


Deeply troubled about this risk, we tried one last time with the NRC, hoping that perhaps the recent tragedies in New York and Washington would have driven home to that agency that it can no longer be business as usual and that the NRC must finally and immediately fix these glaring security problems. On September 14, we wrote NRC Chairman Richard Meserve, with whom we had met the previous year urging the NRC to fix the huge security weaknesses at the nuclear sites under its jurisdiction. Our letter spelled out the emergency situation and urged the NRC take the following steps immediately:


1. order not merely recommend the activation of the highest level of emergency security plans at the nations nuclear facilities and keep that protection in place until regular security regulations are dramatically upgraded and implemented. These should include dramatically increased protections both against external and insider threats.


2. assure that all such facilities are fully implementing emergency security procedures of the highest level, and that the implementation is fully adequate for each facility, given the extraordinary threat.


3. recommend that the National Guard be called out to protect each domestic nuclear facility, and advise the Guard as to the specific kinds of threats that need to be protected against: truck bombs, attacks by boat or air, ground assault/penetration, and insiders.


4. commence thorough re-evaluation of all nuclear power plant personnel in the country for potential security risks and establish an immediate strict two-person rule to reduce risks of insider attack.


5. on an immediately-effective basis, promulgate new security regulations for protection of nuclear facilities that upgrade those regulations and the associated Design Basis Threat to deal with a threat of the magnitude that is now clear. That security upgrade should include:


(a) increasing the design basis threat to a significantly larger number of attackers;


(b) increasing the required guard force accordingly;


(c) requiring protection against attackers working in coordinated teams, using sophisticated techniques and equipment;


(d) requiring a strong two-person rule and other enhanced measures to protect against insiders;


(e) requiring protection against a truck bomb as large as a large semi-trailer can carry;


(f) requiring protections against boat and airplane attacks;


(g) requiring full security protection of spent fuel storage pools and dry cask storage, including after reactor closure;


(h) requiring armed escorts for all spent fuel shipments, capable of repelling attacks by a large number of attackers working as several coordinated teams and using sophisticated techniques and equipment;


(i) and eliminate the exemption in the regulations from protecting against attacks by enemies of the United States.


6. reverse the plans for an industry-run self-regulation program on security aimed at replacing OSRE; and instead, at least tripling the number and frequency of OSRE tests; making any problems identified subject to enforcement action; having OSRE test against the full magnitude of the security threat made clear by recent events (e.g., large numbers and high sophistication of attackers, multiple coordinated attacking teams, active insider, etc.) and the full range of potential targets at the reactor site (e.g., spent fuel storage); and strictly enforcing the security requirements so that failure of OSRE tests results in reactor shutdown until and unless there is full demonstration that the deficiencies have been fully rectified.


7. requiring any new reactors to be able to demonstrate that its design can withstand any credible terrorist attack, even if the security system is penetrated.


8. barring any transport of high level waste until and unless new security requirements are put in place that require accompanying security forces capable of meeting attacks by terrorists of the magnitude and sophistication so dramatically revealed by recent events, and which provide high protection against insider actions.


Last Friday, we received a reply from Chairman Meserve to our letter of September 14. It is identical in tone and content to all our previous communications with the Commission over the last 15 years, declining once again to take any of the necessary actions to protect the public from terrorists, even under the current extraordinary circumstances. Despite the current crisis, the NRC continues to stick its head in the sand, hoping the problem will go away of its own accord.


After great soul-searching, we have concluded that we must go public with the problems and the failure of the NRC to responsibly address them. One must presume that our adversaries know the plants are vulnerable. It is time the public and our elected officials also realize this vulnerability and demand prompt action to remedy it.


We call on Members of Congress, particularly those with committee responsibilities in this area, to press for prompt action to fill these security gaps. And we call on the President and his new head of Homeland Defense, Governor Ridge, to promptly take the steps we have outlined to protect this country from an attack on our nuclear facilities.


Were there an attack on one or more nuclear plants, releasing immense amounts of radioactivity over wide areas and contaminating large numbers of people with deadly radioactivity, we would have trouble living with ourselves had we not taken every step we could to have prevented it. We have quietly warned the NRC, to no avail. Now we have no option left but to warn the public of the problem and to call on the White House and Congress to assure these facilities are fully and immediately protected. We pray they act before it is too late.