USA TODAY, November 3, 1998

Anti-terror program for nuke plants axed

LOS ANGELES - A federal counter-terrorism program designed to identify security lapses at commercial nuclear power plants has been scrapped and budget cuts are partly to blame, the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission program is being dropped in a cost-cutting reorganization, the newspaper said.

The program was designed to prevent someone from causing the devastation seen at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine in 1986. An accidental meltdown of a reactor core led to at least 125,000 deaths.

The 1991 program was killed at the end of September. Three weeks earlier, the NRC issued an advisory that recommended increased security at nuclear plants.

The program has identified serious security lapses at nearly half the nation's 104 nuclear power reactors, the Times said.

At one reactor, a team "was able to reach and simulate sabotaging enough equipment to cause a core melt," said David Orrik, the NRC security specialist who directed the program.

In March, NRC inspectors were able to scale fences at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station in Vernon, Vt. One inspector smuggled a fake pistol past a plant security check.

To perform well in program drills, plants had to employ an average of 80% more personnel than their security plans called for, Orrik said. One of the exercises could cost a plant $140,000 to $800,000.

Critics accused the NRC of caving in to pressure to cancel the program, which industry officials said was too expensive. Eleven NRC inspectors have filed written objections to the elimination of the program.

"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 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."

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