US: Nuclear Reactor Guards Feel Vulnerable to Attack

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Environment News Service

Security guards protecting 24 of the nation's nuclear reactors, located at 13 power plants across the U.S., have little confidence that they could defeat a determined terrorist attack, finds a new report by a nonprofit nuclear watchdog group. The guards told interviewers that their morale is very low, and that they are under equipped, understaffed, and underpaid.

The report, based on interviews conducted by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), warns that security guards at only one out of four nuclear power plants are confident their plant could defeat a terrorist attack.

"If an attack took place, most of the guards would run like hell," said one of the more than 20 guards interviewed for the report. Most of these guards asked that neither they nor the utility that runs their plant be identified so as not to expose ongoing vulnerabilities, and because of the fear of reprisal from their employers.

The guards told the POGO interviewers that most nuclear power plants have increased the overtime hours worked by plant security personnel, rather than adding new personnel, since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Some guards are now working up to six consecutive days of 12 hour shifts, and guards raised serious concerns about fatigue.

Prior to September 11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) required only five to 10 security guards on duty per nuclear reactor. Since then, the NRC has ordered the utilities to minimally increase the guard force, but many plant operators have opted to increase the hours of their existing guards instead.

While a few guards said their plants have increased the guard force - one plant has tripled the number of guards - most interviewed believe that they are still below adequate levels to defeat a real terrorist attack.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's security requirements are totally inadequate to defend a nuclear power plant from terrorist attack," said Danielle Brian, executive director of POGO. "The vast majority of nuclear plants have done the least amount required to protect the American public from a suicidal terrorist attack."

Inadequate training and preparation was another concern raised by the guards interviewed by POGO. Nuclear industry executives have repeatedly claimed that guards receive 270 hours of training before being posted; 90 hours per year to requalify with their weapons; and 30 hours per year in antiterrorist tactical exercises.

None of these claims appear to be true, POGO charges. Most guards interviewed train with their weapons only once per year for two to three hours during their annual weapons qualification. Most also have had no training or practice in shooting at a moving target.

So called "tabletop" exercises, aimed at training guards to respond to theoretical attacks, are so rudimentary that utilities use red and blue colored clothes pins to depict locations and tactics of guards and terrorists.

Low wages and inadequate health, disability and other benefits are causing high turnover in the guard force - at some plants as high as 70 to 100 percent over the 3 year life of a labor contract. At six nuclear facilities identified by POGO, security guards were being paid $1 to $4 less per hour than custodians or janitors.

Guards also often earn less than workers in their area who face substantially less risk such as funeral attendants, manicurists and aerobic instructors, the report notes.

Many of the guards also believe they are not equipped with adequate weaponry. The power and range of weapons provided to many of the guards is vastly inferior to the weapons known to be used by terrorists, due in part to restrictive state laws.

According to one guard, terrorists will come armed with automatic weapons, sniper rifles and grenades and the guard force "would be seriously outgunned, and won't have a chance."

Even the weapons available to the security guards might be useless in the case of a sneak attack, as nearly all of the guards interviewed raised concerns about the lack of guidance on the use of deadly force.

Guards are currently restricted from using deadly force unless an intruder is wielding a weapon or threatening the life of an individual. For example, if a suicidal terrorist with a backpack containing explosives jumped the fence and headed straight for a spent fuel pool, the guard could legally only observe and report the event.

Spent fuel pools are temporary storage areas where depleted fuel rods from nuclear reactors are stored in water to keep them cool enough to avoid a nuclear reaction and radiation release. At nuclear plants that have boiling water reactors - about one third of existing U.S. reactors - spent fuel pools are located above ground, outside reactor containment buildings.

POGO warns that terrorists could use explosives launched from outside power plant fences, or carried inside the fence in a backpack, to puncture the concrete walls of a spent fuel pool, draining the water and causing radioactive fires. Guards on patrol could not legally fire upon terrorists jumping the fence or preparing to launch explosives from the unprotected area outside the fence.

The NRC requires utilities simply to delay attackers until outside help arrives from local sheriff departments, state police or the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). One guard summed up the problem stating, "If you pull the trigger, you're on your own and you'll need a good lawyer."

The NRC is now recognizing the chasm between how long plant security can hold off an attack and when outside responders could arrive. Tabletop exercises begun by NRC in July indicate that it would take one to two hours for outside responders to arrive with SWAT capability.

NRC's performance tests have shown that successful terrorist attacks are over in between three to 10 minutes.

Since the September 11 attacks, the NRC has failed to toughen security regulations. Current regulations reportedly only require nuclear plants to be prepared for an attack by three terrorists and one insider - a scenario that POGO calls clearly inadequate in light of the coordinated attack by 19 terrorists last September.

The NRC has not conducted force on force performance tests since September 11, citing security risks, POGO noted. However, both the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy (DOE), which are also at high alert status, have continued to test the performance of security over the past year.

Prior to September 11, 2001, power plants failed the mock force on force tests almost half the time, according to closed door Congressional testimony by NRC officials. POGO charges that even those tests are "seriously dumbed down," and do not realistically represent a true terrorist attack scenario.

In addition to security guards, POGO also interviewed Army and Navy Special Forces personnel who conduct force on force tests, current and former NRC and other officials, a National Guard commander, and civilian contractors. POGO's report is based on information and documents gathered from these sources.

Improvements recommended by Congress and various watchdog groups have so far not been implemented by the NRC, POGO charges. POGO has briefed officials at the NRC on its own findings, which include evidence gathered before the September 11 attacks.

In early 2001, POGO began its first investigation into nuclear security, after more than a dozen high level Department of Energy security experts came forward with concerns regarding inadequate security at the DOE's nuclear weapons facilities. Just prior to September 11, 2001, POGO completed that investigation, concluding that the nation's 10 nuclear weapons facilities, which house almost 1,000 tons of weapons grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium, regularly fail to protect this material during mock terrorist attacks.

The resulting report, "U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Security at Risk," was released in October 2001. Since the report's release, Congress, the General Accounting Office, and several federal agencies have undertaken ongoing reviews of POGO's findings.

The DOE is now preparing to relocate tons of bomb grade nuclear materials from one of three facilities POGO profiled for immediate attention. The facility, known as Technical Area 18, is located in a canyon at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, that POGO called "indefensible."

Because of this work at nuclear weapons facilities, several current and former guards from commercial nuclear power plants began contacting POGO in early 2002 with similar concerns about inadequate security at the nation's nuclear power plants. POGO then expanded its investigation, randomly contacting guards at additional facilities.

POGO eventually interviewed more than 20 guards protecting 24 reactors at 13 sites, both active and decommissioning - 23 percent of the nation's total reactors. All the guards said they came forward hoping to help inform policymakers of the current security inadequacies by working with POGO.

POGO is urging Congress to require that nuclear power plants be prepared to repel large numbers of attackers using conventional, chemical or biological weapons, attacks from multiple entry points, and diversionary tactics used to confuse the guards. POGO also recommends that plants be required to successfully pass tests of their security, and include potential attacks on spent fuel pools in these tests.

To increase security, POGO says plants should upgrade their guard numbers, pay and benefits tactical training and weaponry. Congress should work to clarify when guards may use deadly force, and expand whistleblower protections to nuclear power plant employees who report their concerns to people other than Congress, such as watchdog groups like POGO.

Senate action on legislation to improve power plant security, the Nuclear Security Act of 2002, is slated before Congress leaves in the fall. POGO says the bill would address many of the security inadequacies in the nuclear industry.

The full POGO report, titled "Nuclear Power Plant Security: Voices from Inside the Fences," is available at:

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