BUT DECRY DELAYS AND SHORTCOMINGS
Two specialists on risks of nuclear terrorism who have waged a decade-long campaign to press the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to protect nuclear power plants against truck bombs praised the NRC for finally approving such a rule, published today in the Federal Register. But the two experts, Paul Leventhal of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington and Daniel Hirsch of the Los Angeles-based Committee to Bridge the Gap, also criticized the Commission for moving too slowly, not going far enough, and giving utilities too much leeway in implementing the rule.
The rule apparently was watered down at the eleventh hour when the Commissioners modified staff recommendation to accommodate the nuclear industry. The industry has long argued that there are two separable threats: vehicle intrusion, which involves an intruder crashing through fences and other barriers to gain access to a nuclear plant, and vehicle bombs, which would be parked outside the security fence. Industry representatives argued that a moving "suicide" truck bomb was not a plausible threat in the United States.
The Commissioners did not fully accept this argument; the final rule does require protection against a moving truck bomb. But the Commissioners apparently did reduce the size of the bomb and the vehicle threat against which utilities will be required to protect themselves. The utilities apparently pressed for this concession because it would reduce the costs of bringing their facilities into compliance with the new rule.
The key alterations to the rule are contained in a package of "safeguards" information that is not available to the public. Therefore, it is impossible to provide a description of the last- minute changes beyond general guidance provided by NRC staff. Leventhal and Hirsch urged the Commission to be more forthcoming in discussing the changes they made in the staff recommendations. "We are not asking the Commission to tell us the exact size of the bomb that licensees will have to protect against. We are asking the Commission to say how the safeguards package has been changed from what the staff originally proposed."
Still, Leventhal and Hirsch said the final rule represents significant progress, given the Commission's history of false starts in this area. They have been pressing the NRC since 1984 to require protection against truck bombs, but, until now, their petitions for rulemaking have been repeatedly rejected. "While we are pleased that the NRC finally has approved the truck-bomb rule, the Commission did not see fit to move until the tragic bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City and the intrusion by an individual in a station wagon at the remaining Three Mile Island-1 nuclear power plant last year," they said. "Until the events at the World Trade Center and Three Mile Island, which occurred without warning, the NRC had dismissed our concerns on the grounds that utilities would receive advance warning of attacks and then would have sufficient time to take protective measures against vehicle intrusions and truck bombs. It is now clear that attacks can occur without warning."
Leventhal and Hirsch also noted that the NRC's approval of the rule has particular relevance today, amid tensions on the Korean peninsula. The Commission's action makes clear that South Korea's reactors, most of which are U.S.-designed, could be vulnerable to bombing by North Korea in the event of war, resulting in widespread radioactive releases.
Leventhal added: "We are troubled by the fact that the only substantial changes from the proposed rule to the final rule are those that respond to complaints by the nuclear industry. In addition to being watered down at the last minute, the final rule extended the deadline for utilities to come into compliance with it. The NRC rejected our points, including our call for greater Commission oversight of utilities' security plans."
Hirsch said, "We will closely monitor the implementation of the rule to make sure that utilities, and the Commission, adhere to it in letter and spirit. We also will press the NRC to move quickly and effectively in completing the second, and equally important, phase of its reassessment of the design basis threat regulations."
The "design basis threat" is the threat that security measures at nuclear power plants are required to be designed to withstand. Phase 1 focused on vehicle intrusion and vehicle bombs. Phase 2 is to address other issues, such as requiring protection against an increased number of attackers and more sophisticated weaponry.