The Rockets' Red Glare

Independence Day 2002 -- loaded with patriotism and common-denominator celebration -- creates an attractive target date for terrorists. But if those fireworks are exploding anywhere near the nation's 103 operating commercial nuclear reactors, you might want to make sure those blasts are from "safe-and-sane" fireworks.

Consider this, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: -- Security drills at all nuclear power plants have been suspended.

-- After nearly 10 months, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is still evaluating a change in its basic engineering assumptions over the ability for nuclear facilities to withstand attacks.

-- The NRC is also still evaluating potential effects of a large airplane strike on a nuke.

-- No national NRC security inspector has visited at least one of the largest nuclear plants in the nation since the beginning of the year -- the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Diego, Calif. This is despite "numerous threats to the San Onofre facility, according to the FBI.

-- Only one NRC security inspector has been assigned since January for all the 21 operating reactors in the western region. Two more security inspector positions are being filled.

Although it is ostensibly doing something, between the secrecy surrounding new security measures and the significant lag time in evaluating new engineering and design to harden commercial facilities, the NRC appears publicly blasé about nuclear plants' vulnerability. NRC spokesperson Breck Henderson responded to a minimum of inquiries, for instance, but prefaced the federal riposte with: "You're not doing another story on security?"

Federal regulators' indifferent attitude was highlighted in a spat carried out in the nation's media in April. A recent discovery at the Davis-Besse plant that found corrosion had withered away nearly all of the reactor cap containment brought a general "no problem" from regulators. That was challenged by a former NRC member. Victor Gilinsky, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post called the NRC's "bland pronouncements" about the safety of nuclear plants given the hole at Davis-Besse "disturbing." Current NRC chair Richard Meserve defended the agency's response as "appropriate" in an op-ed response.

The NRC is also tortoise-slow in its federal carapace in getting action on security measures. It has been anything but bland in opposing any attempt by Congress to require active military defenses at power plants, assuring leaders it is unnecessary.

The most vociferous opponent of using active defense through the military at nuclear plants is NRC commissioner Ed McGaffigan. He's dismissed Congressional concerns, and yet admits, "There will be some vulnerability. Not every building is going to be built like a missile silo."

Since Sept. 11, the NRC has, and has not, done the following to address concerns over terrorists using nuclear plants as a target. The potential, remember, could be catastrophic. If a spent fuel assembly was hit, it would only take one-fourth of one assembly (out of many hundreds) dispersed by a high explosive to contaminate with radioactivity more than 1000 square miles, according to the federal National Council on Radiation Protection Draft Report from Sept. 2000.

Increased security

The NRC will not give details of what it has requested nuclear power plant owners to accomplish at their operating reactors to increase security. In general, however, the NRC ordered reactor owners on February 25 to: increase patrols, augment security forces and capabilities, add security posts, install additional physical barriers, reposition vehicle checks at greater stand-off distances, enhance coordination with law enforcement and military authorities and restrict site access controls, according to Meserve.

In addition to the secret security measures ordered by the NRC, other agencies have some responsibility for nuclear plants. For instance, the FBI coordinates with nuclear owners, but at at least one plant the FBI did not "change gears" in its relationship with the owners after "numerous threats" to San Onofre, according to John A. Sylvester, supervisor, counter-terrorism squad 15 (San Diego). Sylvester did say that the FBI has been "tweaking protocols a little" for the plant. "It's a big part of our operations just because who they are. It's a devastating-type target," Sylvester noted.

Working with the FBI and plant owners around the country are local emergency response teams. Some have reported increased attentiveness to nuclear plants as potential terrorist targets to greater and lesser degrees.

The NRC said the Immigration & Naturalization Service had been checking its potential terrorist list against nuclear plant personnel, the INS did not confirm that practice.


The drills the NRC carried out prior to Sept. 11 using pseudo commandos to test nuclear power plant guards' reactions have been terminated with no re-start in sight. According to Meserve, continuing the drills would be "a significant distraction" to power plant security forces. A date to reinstate the drills has not been ascertained.

The drills have been carried out at least once at each nuclear plant, according to Nuclear Control Institute president Ed Lyman. One of the most infamous was in California at San Onofre in November 2000. Anti-nuclear activists claim the NRC's pseudo commandos overtook plant guards. This is despite operators being able to hear elements of the planned drill scenario of the PA system, according to NRC reports. Not only did the guards get early warning, Henderson noted that while the drills are carried out, "There's a lot of people in orange vests with clipboards watching" while the fake commandos are in operation.

The drill was called off for unspecified reasons and the NRC insists no safety is being compromised. In the NRC's alert scheme -- with a green light meaning a notation, but no problem, up to a red light -- this drill received a green citing.

Determining whether or not safety is compromised in this and other reactor incidence is left to a statistical model developed over the past two years, according to Henderson. He would not reveal what that model is nor its assumptions.

Design basis threat, airplane threat

NRC chair Meserve told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works June 5 that regulatory staff is still determining whether and what to do about nuclear reactor design to harden it against attacks. The chair of the committee, Jim Jeffords (I-Vermont), noted that the basic assumptions on power plant security design have not been changed for over 40 years.

NRC spokesperson Henderson said there is no expected date when evaluation of either the basic reactor design to withstand current terrorist threats or the evaluation of potential damage and response from a large airplane aimed at a power plant will be completed. Once that evaluation and determination is made, then it will likely be many months, if not years, before construction is accomplished.

"Effective deterrence, essential for adequate protection, is not found in assurances that there exist "secret" defenses against a "secret" design basis threat, said Ray Shadis, advisor to the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution. "The NRC should be put on notice that there is war on and that there is a difference between regulating to prevent an industrial accident and defining protection for targets now known to be of interest to the enemy."

On the side of safety, however, is the fact that despite the nine-month lag time, opposition to military deterrence, lack of drills, apparently flawed security -- at least prior to Sept. 11 -- at SONGS, and only slightly heightened measures at the FBI, there has been no effective attack on any nuclear plant.

J.A. Savage is senior correspondent for the independent publication California Energy Markets.

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