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Nuclear Anxiety

On September 11, 2001 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a press release entitled “NRC URGES INCREASED SECURITY” which reads, “The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, purely as a precaution, has recommended that all nuclear power plants, non-power reactors, nuclear fuel facilities and gaseous diffusion plants go to the highest level of security. Details of the heightened security are classified. While there has been no credible general or specific threats to any of these facilities, the recommendation was considered prudent, given the acts of terrorism in New York City and, in Washington, D.C.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute’s website has a short article entitled “US Nuclear Plants Protected from Sabotage by Extensive Security Measures” which summarizes nuclear plant security based on “Physical Barriers, Armed Guards, and Personnel Procedures” adding, “Nuclear plant security forces and procedures [are] continually tested in mock drills. Federal regulations require that the industry demonstrate it can protect against a threat by a well-trained paramilitary force intent on forcing its way into a nuclear power plant to commit sabotage, armed with automatic weapons and explosives, with the assistance of an insider who could pass along information and help the attackers. In mock drills conducted periodically under NRC supervision and evaluation, highly skilled, professionally trained intruders make direct frontal attacks on the nuclear plants. They are provided with all information about the plant regarding the location of and pathway to vital equipment, as if they were previously informed by an insider, and proceed to attempt to reach the equipment to disable it. If a drill the energy company chooses to stage is not sufficiently rigorous, the company would be cited for a violation of NRC regulations. The NRC evaluates the efficiency of the plant’s security measures and any necessary enhancements are implemented.”

The NEI doesn’t discuss the NRC’s actual security evaluations or records, nor the results of these voluntary, non-surprise drills. The NEI, adds, “Because of the industry’s security programs and the defense in depth safety strategy, the US FBI classifies nuclear power plants as ‘hardened’ targets. NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan said recently, ‘There are threats to the nation. But outside the military, [the nuclear energy] industry is probably the best at protecting its assets.’ (March 3, 1999).”

By a quirk of macabre timing, the September 17 edition of US News & World Report (published before the September 11th terrorist attacks) ran a long investigative article describing lax security and vulnerability to terrorist attacks at many of the country’s 103 nuclear power plants. In light of the unbelievably accurate terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington DC, the USN&WR story entitled “A nuclear nightmare: They look tough, but some [nuclear] plants are easy marks for terrorism” is sobering, to say the least.

Last year, a Florida-based militia unit run by a twisted soul named Donald Beauregard was caught planning to use stolen explosives to disable the electrical power grid which powers Florida’s Crystal River nuclear power plant. Luckily, an informant tipped off the police and Beauregard was prosecuted and sent to jail. When the cops caught up with Mr. Beauregard and his “strike team” they had already assembled a 20-mm cannon, a .50-caliber machine gun and some pipe bombs.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission took the threat so seriously that it added what Beauregard called “Project Worst Nightmare” to its list of mock terrorist attack scenarios mentioned above.

“In the past decade, nearly half the nation’s 103 power plants have failed mock terrorist attacks against them,” says USN&WR’s Douglas Pasternak. Based on interviews with current and former NRC inspectors, security experts and plant guards, Pasternak concludes, “Often, security measures at nuclear plants don’t work as they should or don’t work at all.” “High on critics’ list of concerns is the failure rate in the NRC-run mock terrorist assaults — attacks that, if real, could have released radiation more lethal than the 1986 Chernobyl accident…” says Pasternak.”In some cases, the mock terrorists make it all the way to the sensitive control room — even though they give plant operators ample advance notice of when they intend to strike.”

The nuclear industry insists that the plants are “overly defended” and the risk of attack is low. But Pasternak describes several incidents of unsuccessful attacks on nuclear plants around the world — none of them from the air.

An unnamed plant security guard is eerily quoted saying, “There is nothing [in the mock attacks] about protecting against a helicopter assault or a missile taking out one of our positions.” Pasternak adds, “Last September an anti-nuclear demonstrator landed a motorized parafoil on the roof of a nuclear reactor in Bern, Switzerland, before being apprehended by security guards.” The demonstrator was unarmed and not bent on suicide.

Pasternak describes semi-successful examples of internal sabotage attempts at some plants, the ease with which truck bombs could be positioned outside their perimeters, the vulnerability of the plants’ water supply systems and back up power generators, the vulnerability of the huge spent nuclear fuel rod storage ponds…

These are serious security and safety concerns, especially as the United States prepares for a protracted and costly war against dangerous but ill-defined terrorists. One can only hope that the nation’s nuclear industry takes the NRC’s non-mandatory “urging” seriously and is better at protecting itself than the airline industry.

PS. Mr. Beauregard’s “worst nightmare” plot was uncovered only when an “informant” tipped off the police, not BY the police. Informant tips can certainly be helpful in preventing disaster (even though several credible tips appear to have been ignored by authorities in the days leading up to the NYC and DC attacks). But informants can be mistaken or malicious. It doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine the risks of misuse of informants if authorities here, in an upsurge of war-inspired defensiveness and worry, feel the need to crack down on certain people and speech as it has in previous wars.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, speaking at a recent International Atomic Energy Agency conference, warned that fanatics could wreak havoc by destroying plants or stealing materials to build their own weapons. According to the Guardian of London, the only paper reporting on the conference, “officials admitted that little could be done to protect them from airborne threats which could cause a ‘Chernobyl situation’.”

“We cannot assume that tomorrow’s terrorist acts will mirror those we’ve just experienced,” Mr. Abraham said. “Clearly, terrorists will attack any target, so no one will be immune. And clearly terrorists will use any method. The terrible events of last week demonstrate in the clearest possible fashion the importance of maintaining the highest levels of security over nuclear materials. We expect the members of this body to prohibit nuclear exports in cases where there is a significant risk of diversion.”

But the delegates from the 132 IAEA member nations acknowledged that their ability to shield nuclear facilities is limited. “It is practically impossible to protect nuclear plants to the extent needed to withstand the sort of attack we saw last week,” said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the IAEA. “Consideration was given to the possibility of a plane crashing into them when they were designed and built. But over 20 years later, we have planes that are almost twice as big and are going on long-haul flights able to carry tons of fuel.”

Dr. Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist working for the Oxford Research Group in London, warned, “What are very big risks are the huge tanks of very, very radioactive liquid stored in reprocessing plants. They contain a huge amount of radioactivity and are less well-protected than the reactors, which are within very large concrete shields.”

A British nuclear industry spokesman echoed his US counterparts insisting that both reactors and reprocessing plants were “extremely robust” and were designed to withstand accidents, including plane crashes. But a US official, who declined to be named, told the Guardian of London that a direct hit from an airliner could cause a “Chernobyl situation.” Although it would not destroy a reactor, it could cause meltdown by damaging its cooling systems, allowing the fuel rods to overheat.

Retired Navy Admiral Eugene Carroll, a long-time critic of the US excessive defense buildups and procurements, recently summed up the situation. “The sad truth is we cannot guard everything in America all the time against terrorist attack. The only realistic hope to reduce the danger of future attacks lies not in violent reprisals by American forces, but in positive preventive programs, taken in concert with other nations to attack the root causes of terrorism by political and economic means. Only by alleviating abject poverty and hopelessness in the poorest nations in the world can we eliminate the spirit that breeds terrorists — that sense that even death is preferable to life under unbearable conditions. This will not be an easy or inexpensive challenge. But it is far less costly than the perpetual cycle of attack and reprisal and with targets like nuclear reactors to aim at.”

But US security “experts” seem more interested in nudging the gaping barn door of airline security this way and that, with irrelevant new “security measures” which would turn passenger aircraft into medium security prisons. No pen knives. No bottle openers. No dinner knives. Plastic forks. (My mother always told me that I could put someone’s eye out with a plastic fork.) No sharp objects. What’s next? No shoelaces? No belts? No credit cards (that can be filed down to sharp edges)? The following threat assessment from the Nuclear Energy Institute provides a frightening indication of the upside-down priorities of the people in charge of the nuclear industry’s security programs: “Nuclear power plant licensees must plan and provide for all reasonable contingencies such as guard strikes and anti-nuclear demonstrations.” CP

Mark Scaramella is the managing editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, the weekly newspaper published in Booneville, CA.

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MARK SCARAMELLA is the Managing Editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Mendocino County, California. (www.theava.com). He can be reached at themaj@pacific.net.

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