When the first plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Jerry Davis was on his way to work at the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in Somervell County, Texas.
As events unfolded that morning, Davis and his colleagues at the nuclear facility huddled around computers monitoring news coverage. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening out there.’”
Almost half of the 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S. are within 50 miles of a metropolitan area with more than 500,000 people. What if a hijacked plane had hit a nuclear reactor?
“It caused us all to sit up and take notice,” said Daniel Dorman, deputy director of the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
A decade later, the NRC claims that nuclear plants are “among the best protected private sector facilities in the nation.” And the industry says it has collectively spent more than $2 billion on new safeguards. Some critics say that’s not enough. Here’s a look at post-9/11 changes at U.S. nuclear power plants, and some open questions about their vulnerability.
Physical Protections: Nuclear power plants are surrounded by scores of physical barriers, including high razor wire fences, advanced surveillance equipment and up to 5-feet-thick concrete walls reinforced with steel rods. Twice as many security guards armed with automatic weapons protect every checkpoint, entrance and side of a plant as before 9/11.
Background Checks: To gain unescorted access to a nuclear plant and its protected or vital areas, workers must pass a background investigation that includes a personal history disclosure, fingerprinting, identity verification, an employment history, a credit check, a psychological assessment, behavioral observation training and a drug test. Before 9/11, employees could work for six months while awaiting FBI clearance. The industry has adopted NRC-recommended fatigue-control measures that limit working hours and let employees cite fatigue as a reason to be sent home. Public tours of plants, frequent before 9/11, are rare.
War Games: Armed security guards and plant staff must guard against more frequent and more realistic mock attacks. Before 9/11, NRC conducted “force-on-force” inspections about every eight years at a plant. Now, they hold drills every three years. Mock assaults are pre-announced “for safety and logistical purposes,” NRC says, but plant guards are not told exactly when, where and how they will be struck. If the plant’s security team fails to dispel an attack, an NRC inspection team stays on site until the guards prevail. Before 9/11, the target was almost always considered to be the reactor core itself, but today, security personnel also must protect spent fuel pools.
The 9/11 commission report released in 2004 said mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed considered nuclear power plants viable targets, and that Mohamed Atta, pilot of one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center, "considered targeting a nuclear facility he had seen during familiarization flights near New York.” That same year, a Union of Concerned Scientists study said the worst-case scenario in a terrorist attack on the Indian Point nuclear plant, 35 miles from New York City, could mean more than half-a-million eventual deaths from the effects of radiation exposure.
But the NRC performed aircraft impact assessments at the nation’s nuclear facilities. “Those analyses showed that the plants are very likely to withstand that kind of [jetliner] impact without releasing anything to the environment,” said NRC spokesman Scott Burnell.
“It would never be a happy day if that [a jetliner strike] happened, but there are layers of protection,” added NRC’s Dorman. In addition to the thick infrastructure protecting the plant and its core, the plants have implemented measures to keep the core and spent fuel pools cool during a loss of offsite power.
Dorman, who also served on the NRC task force examining the March nuclear disaster in Japan, explained that if a plane were to actually hit a plant, the primary job would be to protect the reactor’s core and spent fuel pools from damage. This incorporates a post-9/11 requirement that each plant be able to cope and recover from a station blackout “associated with loss of large areas of the plant due to explosions or fire.”
In 2009, the NRC said future U.S. nuclear plants must be built to withstand a large jetliner strike, but NRC did not require existing nuclear plants be retrofitted to the same standard.
So, 10 years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, are the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors secure?
There is no official, categorical answer, and some post-9/11 changes to protect nuclear power plants are classified, noted Sharron Squassoni, director and senior fellow of the proliferation prevention program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Some critics don’t think so.
“I don’t have any confidence in the level of additional security provided because they can’t tell us what it is,” said Paul Gunter, director of the reactor oversight project for Beyond Nuclear, an anti-nuclear group.
And there have been embarrassing, high-profile security lapses.
In 2007, Wackenhut security guard Kerry Beal videotaped fellow guards asleep on the job at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Plant owner Exelon fired the Wackenhut security firm—which guards many U.S. nuclear plants--and now employs its own guards.
And in 2010, counter-terrorism officers arrested suspected al-Qaeda and al-Shabab member Sharif Mobley in Yemen. Mobley had worked at five U.S. nuclear power plants after passing all required background checks. The screening process has since been “reviewed and strengthened” to assess behavioral changes and “potential home grown terrorist types of activities,” said Chris Earls, director of security for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main trade group.
“Overall things are much better than they were,” said David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Power Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group. “The positives far outweigh the negatives.”
And since nuclear power remains a key part of the U.S. energy strategy, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the electricity produced in the United States, plant security will remain an ongoing concern.
“It’s a question of constant vigilance,” says Squassoni. “Think the unthinkable.”