Within hours of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Prairie Island nuclear power plant, along with the nation's 102 other nuclear facilities, went to the highest state of alert. Public access was suspended and, at the recommendation of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency charged with overseeing the industry, employees were subjected to security screening. With the possible exception of bank vaults, America's nuclear power plants quickly became the most inaccessible properties on Earth. In Washington D.C., meanwhile, NRC officials wasted no time in assuring the public of the safety of nuclear facilities from terrorist attack, including the sort of kamikaze bombings that destroyed the World Trade Center.
In a statement issued on the day of the attacks, Mike Wadley, a senior vice president with Nuclear Management Company, which operates the reactors at Prairie Island and Monticello along with four other nuclear facilities in the Upper Midwest, sounded a similar note of confidence. "We're set up every day to prevent and deter incursion at the nuclear plants," Wadley said. To some critics, however, the statements were cold comfort; even before the terrorist attacks, anti-nuclear watchdog groups were complaining that a new "self-assessment" program, for which Prairie Island was scheduled to be a model, could erode the nuclear industry's ability to defend itself.
Even staunch opponents of nuclear power concede that the country's reactors are, in security parlance, among the most "hardened" targets in the world. The four-foot-thick concrete containment structures are designed to withstand hurricane-force winds, and the reactor vessel itself is protected by another six inches of steel. Yet, after the flurry of initial assurance, industry and government spokespeople began to acknowledge some vulnerability. Two weeks after the attacks, an NRC spokesman admitted that plants were not designed to withstand a strike from a fuel-laden commercial airliner.
According to Doug Walters, a project manager with the industry trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, a meticulously orchestrated assault has never been the focus of security planning. "Our existing security is not equipped to deal with that type of attack," he says, referring to the September 11 strikes. "Obviously, we're looking at what actions you could take, certain things you could do if attack was imminent. In a scenario where you knew ahead of time that a plane was incoming, you could shut off all the lights."
Doubts about nuclear security are compounded by the fact that no one knows what the effect of an attack on a reactor or an adjacent spent-fuel containment area--which often hold many Chernobyls' worth of radioactive material--might be. In the eyes of many nuclear-industry critics, even the specter is horrifying to contemplate. According to Dan Hirsch, president of the Los Angeles-based nuclear watchdog group the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an incident of radiological terrorism has the potential to dwarf the attacks in New York and Washington. "There would be fewer [immediate] casualties," Hirsch says. "But it could result in 10,000 to 100,000 latent cancer deaths, and render an area the size of a state uninhabitable for generations."
And, Hirsch contends, the nuclear industry may be increasingly unprepared to deal with a major terrorist threat. "Security is based on regulations that haven't been altered in 25 years," he says. "That's troubling, because we've seen attacks on an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what they're required to defend against."
At particular issue for Hirsch and many other critics is a decade-old NRC program, called Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation (OSRE), which tests plants' ability to repel terrorist attack. The centerpiece of the OSRE program is the "force-on-force" exercise, mock terrorist raids directed by a former navy SEAL named David Orrik. Though the modus operandi of these drills is classified, observers who have reviewed inspection records agree that they are designed to simulate a small-scale terrorist incursion. In general, a team of around three NRC inspectors armed with lasers and beanbags in lieu of automatic weapons and grenades attempts to evade plant security, reach the reactor core, and breach the reactor's containment.
Although plants are given as much as six months' notice before OSRE inspections--a courtesy actual terrorists would be unlikely to extend--the industry has repeatedly failed the tests. In a 1998 letter leaked to the Los Angeles Times, Orrik asserted that his team had found and exploited "significant" weaknesses at nearly half the plants tested--and, in at least one case, had penetrated far enough to simulate causing a core meltdown. According to David Lochbaum, a former nuclear engineer now with the Union of Concerned Scientists, in one instance plant security guards shot each other during the exercise; the mock saboteurs simply stepped over their bodies.
Instead of forcing plants to revamp security, critics charge, the federal regulators simply tried to change the rules. The industry has long argued that NRC-directed testing placed an undue financial burden on plant owners and that the government-directed mock assaults did not accurately reflect a plant's ability to defend against attackers. In a U.S. News and World Report story published, ironically, the week of September 11, an industry advocate argued that nuclear plants are, in fact, "overly defended"--a position which now seems hopelessly cavalier at best.