WASHINGTON, DC -- The nation's 103 nuclear power reactors are vulnerable
to attack by terrorists, two watchdog groups warned today. The groups
charge that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other government entities
have failed to impose the security measures needed to prevent a successful
attack and avert a potential catastrophe.
While the containment buildings that shelter nuclear reactors are able to
withstand severe events including hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes,
"nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes," the
agency said in a statement. "Detailed engineering analyses of a large
airliner crash have not yet been performed."
In a report released today, the Washington based Nuclear Control Institute
(NCI) and the Los Angeles based Committee to Bridge the Gap released a
recent exchange of letters with NRC chair Richard Meserve. The
organizations cited "the extraordinary and unprecedented threat that now
exists inside the United States in the wake of the attacks on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon."
They laid out specific proposals for denying terrorists the opportunity to
destroy nuclear power plants, including use of National Guard troops to
deter attacks from land and water, deployment of advanced anti-aircraft
weapons to defeat suicidal attacks from the air, and a thorough re-vetting
of all plant employees and contractors to protect against sabotage by
In addition, the groups called on the NRC to upgrade its security
regulations to protect against the larger numbers and the greater
sophistication of attackers posed by the new terrorist threat.
The groups said they have made many attempts over the past 17 years to
convince the NRC and commercial nuclear plant operators to upgrade their
defenses against assaults by terrorist organizations.
This is a familiar refrain, and we do not have the luxury of time to allow
the NRC and other federal agencies to engage in a prolonged bureaucratic
review process," said Paul Leventhal, president of NCI, at a press
conference in Washington. "Iran threatened attacks against U.S. reactors as
early as 1987, but recent trial testimony has revealed that [terrorist
leader Osama] bin Laden's training camps are offering instruction in 'urban
warfare' against 'enemies' installations' including power plants."
"It is prudent to assume, especially after the horrific, highly coordinated
attacks of September 11, that bin Laden's soldiers have done their homework
and are fully capable to attack nuclear plants for maximum effect,"
Dr. Edwin Lyman, a physicist and NCI's scientific director, pointed out
that a direct, high speed hit by a large commercial passenger jet "would in
fact have a high likelihood a penetrating a containment building" that
houses a power reactor.
"Following such an assault," Lyman said, "the possibility of an unmitigated
loss of coolant accident and significant release of radiation into the
environment is a very real one."
David Kyd of the International Atomic Energy Agency told CNN last week that
a if a fully fueled large jetliner hit a nuclear reactor, "which is a very
extreme scenario, then the containment could be breached and the cooling
system of the reactor could be impaired to the point where radioactivity
might well be set free."
Such a release, whether caused by an air strike, or by a ground or water
assault, or by insider sabotage could result in tens of thousands of cancer
deaths downwind of the plant. A number of these plants are located near
large cities, Lyman noted.
Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, underscored
the immediate danger by noting that nearly half of the plants tested in NRC
supervised security exercises have failed to repel mock terrorist attacks.
"These exercises involve small numbers of simulated attackers compared with
the large cell of terrorists now understood to have waged the four
sophisticated attacks of September 11," said Hirsch. "The NRC's mock
terrorist exercises severely limit the tactics, weapons and explosives used
by the adversary, yet in almost half the tests they reached and simulated
destruction of safety systems that in real attacks could have caused severe
core damage, meltdown and catastrophic radioactive releases."
"Now in response to operator complaints, the NRC is actually preparing to
shift responsibility for supervising these exercises to the operators
themselves," Hirsch added. "Current events clearly show that nuclear power
plant security is too important to be left to industry self assessment."
Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who sent his own
letter to Meserve, questioned the NRC's hands off approach, asking why the
NRC issued only a recommendation that nuclear power plants go to their
highest state of alert on September 11, rather than ordering them to do so.
Markey also warned that allowing commercial nuclear power plants to self
police their readiness to withstand terrorist attacks, "lowers standards,
it lowers costs and it increases profitability of shareholders."
The watchdog organizations acknowledged today that they have long been
troubled by the dilemma of speaking about the present vulnerability of
nuclear power plants.
"We have tried to work quietly for a decade and a half in a largely
unsuccessful attempt to get the NRC to upgrade reactor security." said
Leventhal. "Our principal success came in 1994 when the NRC agreed to
require nuclear plant operators to erect barriers and establish setback
distances to protect against truck bomb attacks. But this reform came only
after the lesson of the bombing of the World Trade Center the year before,
and the NRC has refused our appeals to upgrade protection to defend against
the much larger bombs used by terrorists since."
Hirsch said that the horrendous attacks of September 11 have now made NRC
foot dragging intolerable.
"The new threat should now be evident to all, and the country can afford to
wait no longer," Hirsch said. "The vulnerabilities at these plants can and
must be closed, now. The American people have a right to know the dangers
and to demand the prompt corrective actions that we propose to protect
nuclear power plants from terrorist attacks and the unthinkable
consequences that could follow."