U.S. lawmaker fears risk of nuclear plant attacks

Reuters North America
Wednesday, November 11, 1998 4:39:00 PM
By Patrick Connole

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Rep. Edward Markey Wednesday asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to explain why it eliminated a program meant to help prevent terrorist attacks on the nation's more than 100 commercial nuclear reactors.

Writing to NRC Chairman Shirley Ann Jackson, Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said media reports raised concerns that cutting the program -- called Operational Safeguards Response Evaluations -- could leave nuclear plants more vulnerable.

"The widespread death and long-term destruction resulting from a successful attack on a nuclear reactor could dwarf the impact of terrorist attacks on other targets. In light of the potential threats, this is not the time to relax protection against terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants," he wrote.

At issue is a Nov. 3 article in the Los Angeles Times, which said the program discovered serious plant security lapses during its 10-year mandate to test plant safety. The newspaper said the nuclear agency quietly ended the 7-year-old program at the end of September as part of a cost-cutting effort.

Markey said the article detailed how NRC teams, in a simulated attack, would have been able to cause a core meltdown at one unnamed plant. The newspaper said NRC teams also were able to scale security fences at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in a March drill and slip fake guns past checkpoints.

Markey, who sits on a House Commerce subcommittee for energy and power issues, also wrote to National Security Council Advisor Sandy Berger asking him to look into the matter.

"Almost half the plants tested under the canceled program showed significant weaknesses in protecting against the design basis threat," Markey wrote to Berger.

"Thus I am concerned that many nuclear plants in the U.S. may not have adequate security against terrorist attacks and that NRC oversight of nuclear plant safety is inadequate."

Last week, NRC released a statement refuting charges that nuclear plant security has been weakened, calling media reports "misleading" in describing OSRE as the only program for testing plants' ability to repel terrorist attacks.

"Such assertions fail to account for continuing NRC inspections and required compliance verification programs conducted by the licensees (plant owners) to assure the continued effectiveness of security measures," the NRC said.

Markey also posed a list of questions to the agency, including one asking if nuclear utilities pushed for the program's elimination for cost and jurisdictional reasons, and at what nuclear facility NRC teams were able to simulate the sabotage that would have caused a plant "melt."

The NRC noted that it had recently undertaken a review of the role of performance testing in validating security at commercial nuclear power plants.


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