Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, November 3, 1998
U.S. Drops Anti-Terrorist Tests at Nuclear Plants
Security: Shrinking budget is cited. Simulated attacks had found serious lapses at half of nation's reactors.
By FRANK CLIFFORD, Times Environmental Writer
The federal government has eliminated its only program for testing the ability of commercial nuclear power plants to repel armed terrorists--part of a cost-cutting reorganization of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Established in 1991, when the aftermath of the Gulf War heightened fears about terrorist attacks, the program, while small, had identified serious security lapses at nearly half the nation's 104 nuclear power reactors.
At one reactor, an agency team simulating an armed attack "was able to reach and simulate sabotaging enough equipment to cause a core melt," said David Orrik, the NRC security specialist who directed the counter- terrorism program known as Operational Safeguards Response Evaluations.
The program had sparked complaints by some in the nuclear power industry that it was too costly--although others had praised the program for improving their security plans. Some NRC security experts have accused the agency of caving in to industry pressure to cancel the program.
In a recent memo, several security officials noted that federal law enforcement experts no longer think of civilian nuclear facilities as unlikely targets. "The FBI reports that a lesson from terrorist attacks in recent years--domestic and international--has proved that there is no such thing as an unlikely target," the memo said.
Indeed, three weeks before the NRC quietly shut down the counter-terrorism program at the end of September, the same agency issued an advisory titled "Threat Assessments and Consideration of Heightened Physical Measures," which recommended that nuclear plants increase security.
Insurance Against a Catastrophe
The NRC's program was designed to guard against the possibility that any person could cause the kind of devastation in this country that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in northern Ukraine in 1986. There, an accidental meltdown of a reactor core led to at least 125,000 deaths.
"If the concern in this country were merely over accidental meltdowns, I wouldn't hesitate to build my house next door to a plant," said Bruce Earnest, the NRC's security inspector for nuclear power plants in California and Arizona. "But if you start taking vital security away from these plants, I am not going to live 100 miles downwind. And doing away with [the program] is a major step in that direction." Earnest is one of 11 NRC inspection officials who have filed written objections to the elimination of the counter-terrorism program.
Richard Rosano, the NRC's acting branch chief for security, said the counter-terrorism program is being terminated as part of an agencywide reorganization dictated, in part, by a declining budget. Rosano also said there has been a debate over whether the NRC had the legal authority to run the program.
Some utility companies "felt they were having to spend a great deal of money to gear up for exercises that some didn't believe there was any authority for," he said. The agency is "reviewing what we learned with [the program] and what likely new approaches will be taken to accomplish the same goals," Rosano said. But, he added, there are no plans now to resume the counter-terrorist preparedness exercises--the mock attacks on plants. "We won't be doing force on force," he said.
In addition to "force on force" simulations, where mock attacks are staged, the program that is being terminated also tests plant security systems, including alarms, perimeter barriers, television monitors and metal detectors. That oversight function is scheduled to be phased out in one year. "There is no other NRC counter-terrorism inspection or oversight effort," Orrik wrote in a memo officially protesting elimination of the drills.
Moreover, no other government agency conducts similar readiness tests at commercial power plants, all of which are licensed by the NRC.
The decision to cancel the program has drawn sharp criticism from nuclear watchdog groups.
"It took over a decade to get the NRC to put in place an anti-terrorism program. And now, under the dark of night, they are abolishing it at a time when the risks are at least as great as they have ever been," said Dan Hirsch, the president of the Los Angeles-based group Bridge the Gap and the author of a 1985 study arguing for the need to strengthen protections against attacks on nuclear facilities.
Size of Program Was Questioned
The threat of sabotage at commercial power plants has been a concern to the government since 1977, when a report by the General Accounting Office, the government's audit agency, concluded that the facilities could not repel intruders who were well-armed and had knowledge of the plants.
Even after the NRC program was created, critics said, it was hobbled by its size. Orrik has stated that his three-man, $90,000-a-year operation had not yet conducted anti-terrorist exercises at 11 plants as of Sept. 30, when the program's force on force drills were terminated.
Both of the two NRC-licensed facilities in California, San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant south of San Clemente and Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant southwest of San Luis Obispo, passed their anti-terrorist tests, said Earnest, who was in charge of the inspections at the two plants. That was not the case, however, at 47% of the plants tested nationally, according to Orrik's memo.
In March, NRC inspectors were able to scale fences at six of 10 locations at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vernon, Vt. In addition, one inspector was able to smuggle a fake pistol hidden in a backpack past a plant security check.
\Without the government looking over the industry's shoulder, Orrik and other NRC security experts fear, companies are unlikely to spend the money to maintain adequate security. "Security managers admit--volunteer--that, without the specter of a return [program] visit, they would find it impossible to justify continuing external threat analysis and shift training," Orrik wrote to his superiors.
To perform well in force on force drills, plants were compelled to employ an average of 80% more personnel than their security plans called for, Orrik said. Gearing up for one of the exercises could cost a plant $140,000 to $800,000.
Other NRC security experts accused the agency of caving in to industry pressure. "The nuclear industry has stated that the . . . program is expensive and has encouraged the NRC to eliminate [it]. Elimination of the program demonstrates that NRC and the nuclear industry have placed industry profits ahead of public health and safety," three Dallas-based NRC security specialists wrote in a memorandum urging the agency not to terminate the counter-terrorism program.
But one industry spokesman said he was astonished that the NRC counter-terrorism program was being stopped. "It was excellent," said Jack Wallace, manager of security at the San Onofre plant, which is owned by Southern California Edison Co. "The people who ran it had recommendations for us which we followed, and it improved our system. . . . Edison never complained of the costs."
Wallace said that in the absence of the NRC program, San Onofre would continue efforts to test its own security. "Our system is checked multiple times a year on all shifts. We hire consultants to run our own force on force drills."
But Wallace said those efforts can't duplicate what the NRC did. "Conducting your own drills is like a practice session. [Operational Safeguards Response Evaluations] was like the big game. They might run five or six scenarios against us where we might run one or two. They brought a new set of eyes."
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