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Nuclear Plant Security

Monday, September 9, 2002 at 4:04 PM

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On September 11th, the federal government was forced to rapidly reassess the nation's biggest security risks. One of these was the vulnerability of nuclear power plants. Just days after the attacks on New York and Washington, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledged that nuclear plants were not built to withstand the impact of a large jet. In his State of the Union address, President Bush acknowledged that Taliban documents found in Afghanistan specifically targeted U.S. reactors. Since then, security has been heightened at all of the country's nuclear facilities. But nuclear watchdogs say many threats have yet to be assessed. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.

Karen Schaefer: On September 11, the Nuclear Regultory Commission ordered the nation’s 103 operating nuclear plants on highest alert. No-fly zones were established, with F16 Air Force fighter jets as back-up. At both Davis-Besse near Toledo and the Perry nuclear plant east of Cleveland, the U.S. Coast Guard patroled one-mile security zones in the waters of Lake Erie. The NRC even temporarily shut down its website to purge it of sensitive information. But just a few days later, federal regulators had to admit they’d never considered what might happen if a jet fully loaded with fuel struck a nuclear reactor. Security at all nuclear facilities was immediately heightened. Senator George Voinovich is the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, which includes nuclear power. Early in 2002, he visited the Perry plant to see the new security measures firsthand.

George Voinovich: I think the public should know that I am absolutely overwhelmed at the security they have here at this facility. Bad people getting into this place - I have no concern about that occuring.

KS: New security precautions at both plants include additional barriers and extended perimeters, extra guards, new security equipment, and intensified background checks for visitors and employees. But Voinvovich says the threat of airborne attack is one that can only be handled by the federal government.

GV: We’re worried about just air, period. Not only hijackers taking over, but foreign powers perhaps trying to penetrate our airspace. I think that dealing with that problem takes care of our problem here.

KS: Even if armed forces are able to prevent an attack from the air, there are still land and water approaches to consider. According to NRC records, mock attacks conducted by Navy SEALS have succeeded in breeching security in almost half the tests conducted. After September 11, the NRC temporarily suspended these security exercises. They have yet to be resumed. Richard Wilkins is a spokesman for FirstEnergy, which owns both Ohio plants. He says FirstEnergy’s security precautions meet federal guidelines. He says they also take into account differences in the plants’ proximity to towns and highways. But Wilkins admits guarding the shoreline is more difficult.

Richard Wilkins: Well actually somebody did enter the restricted area around Davis-Besse, a fisherman who strayed into the area. It was quickly picked up by our own security people, the shrrif’s department and local police department were notified, and the Coast Guard arrived on the secene shortly thereafter.

KS: This year, the Coast Guard escorted a second straying boater out of Lake Erie waters near the Fermi plant in Michigan. Wilkins insists there is little a waterborne attack could do to damage a FirstEnergy plant. But others aren’t so sure. David Lockbaum is a nuclear watchdog with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. He believes the most vulnerable point of a nuclear plant is not the reactor, but the spent fuel that’s stored on site.

David Lockbaum: When the fuel’s in the reactor, there’s been a number of tests and demonstrations to ensure that all those security pieces fit together nicely and there are no seams that our enemies might want to try to exploit. There’s never been a test of adequate security of spent fuel at plants in Ohio or plants elsewhere in the country.

KS: Nuclear fuel is much more radioactive when it comes out of the reactor than when it goes in. It’s stored in pools of water embedded in the ground, in buildings far less hardened than those which house reactors. At Davis-Besse, some fuel is alos stored above ground in concrete casks. If the water were to be lost - or the casks breached - Lockbaum says the tightly packed rods would immediately combust. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission concedes that such a fire could not be extinguished. In 1997, the agency estimated that a severe pool fire could render almost 200 square miles uninhabitable and cause as many as 2,800 cancer deaths. Congressman Dennis Kucinich considers that risk unacceptable.

Dennis Kucinich: We should be very careful about protecting our fresh water supply here. We have a responsibility to people all over the Great Lakes and Canada as well. Imgaine what shape we’d be in as a region if our lake became polluted.

KS: While security remains high at Ohio’s nuclear facilities, some measures have been relaxed. No-fly zones have been abandoned and restricted zones in Lake Erie have shrunk to half a mile. Security issues such as insider threats still remain to be tested and regulations developed. But for Kucinich and others the greatest threat remaining is the lack of federal oversight exercised at Davis-Besse, where FirstEnergy admits putting production over safety led to a hole in the reactor that went undetected for years. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

Additional Information

* NRC Reacts to Terrorist Attacks
* Nuclear Security Enhancements Since Sept. 11, 2001

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