In 1998, swayed by industry arguments, regulators tried to eliminate the OSRE program. Only after the embarrassing public disclosure of Orrik's report and an ensuing outcry from watchdogs and politicians (particularly Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Edward Markey), the NRC reinstituted the program--with the caveat that the agency's staff would review the viability of the staged assaults. (In apparent exchange for blowing the whistle on the industry's security lapses, Orrik himself was subsequently investigated for breaching security.)
In the face of continued industry opposition, OSRE still seemed fated to fade away quietly. Beginning this month, the program was scheduled to be phased out in favor of an industry-sponsored regimen of "self-assessment." Safeguards Performance Assessment (SPA), the pilot program designed to replace it--in which Prairie Island was slated to participate--would allow plants to run their own mock "force-on-force" exercises with NRC oversight. The Nuclear Energy Institute's Walters says that the self-assessment program will actually allow for more frequent testing, since federal inspectors only conduct exercises at each plant once every eight years. In addition, Walters says, the new program may provide a more nuanced analysis of plant security. "The NRC has said in the past that half the plants failed OSRE," he says. "But there's a question of what this pass/fail judgment means. With SPA, the [plant] would evaluate the results. The fundamental difference is that the [plants] are self-assessed in this program."
But critics insist that government regulators are essentially allowing the industry to police itself. "The OSRE program demonstrated that plants simply aren't up to snuff," says Bennett Ramberg, Hirsch's colleague at the Committee to Bridge the Gap and author of a 1980 book detailing the threat of nuclear sabotage. "If security has been proven inadequate, then why should the program be turned over to the industry?"
Erik Pakieser, a former security officer at Prairie Island who currently runs a Faribault-based security consulting firm, argues that nuclear security is, on the whole, very tight. (Maureen Brown, a spokesperson for Nuclear Management Company, confirms that Prairie Island has performed well in past government-directed security exercises.) However, Pakieser is also circumspect about the prospect of industry self-regulation.
"The analogy is, you're driving down the freeway and you decide the speed limit," he quips. "Then if you speed, you pull over and call the police to turn yourself in. Then they forgive you without giving you a ticket."
Pakieser, who specializes in threat-assessment, points out that because of their heavy fortification, nuclear plants are exponentially less likely to become terrorist targets than unprotected sites. Yet he worries that even with an improved track record, security programs at plants like Prairie Island may be myopically focusing on a threat from a small team of terrorists determined to breach the core.
"The security criteria is all based on what the NRC has decided is the greatest threat," he says. "The problem with that is, plants protect against that and nothing else." Contingencies like a strike on spent-fuel storage areas--which are outside the reactor's containment structure--or an act of sabotage from within may not get the attention they merit if the industry grades itself solely on its performance against mock raids.
In either case, the future of industry self-regulation may soon become a moot point. In an amendment that passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, Markey proposed scuttling the program and requiring OSRE testing at least once every two years. In addition Markey's amendment, if made law, would require federal authorities to revisit security regulations to account for the possibility of an airliner attack, major car bombs, or internal sabotage.
And even industry boosters have tempered their argument that nuclear power plants are over-defended. The Nuclear Energy Institute's Walters, while asserting that the self-assessment program is still "the right thing to do," acknowledges that the landscape has changed dramatically. "With a heightened awareness of security, priorities get rearranged a little bit," he says. "We're kind of in wait-and-see mode right now."