WASHINGTON — A new report commissioned by the Pentagon maintains that nuclear facilities run by private companies and universities remain vulnerable to a 9/11-style terrorist attack.
By contrast, atomic sites operated by the Defense and Energy Departments are largely protected from the possibility of such assaults.
The report, issued by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas-Austin, calls attention to the regulations of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which licenses civilian nuclear reactors. Alan Kuperman — one of two of authors of the document — said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday that the NRC rules currently require commercial reactors to be able to defend themselves against attack by a group of approximately five or six terrorists.
This is nearly double the number of hypothetical attackers that commercial reactors were required to defend against prior to the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, Kuperman noted. He added though, that it is still less than half of the 19 terrorists believed to have directly carried out the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
“We commend the upgrades, but our concern is they’re not enough,” said Kuperman, referring to the ability of the regulations to protect against a worst case scenario.
Also of concern is that NRC rules do not require managers of existing commercial reactors to protect the facilities from attacks that might come from the air — as they did in 2001 — or by sea, Kuperman said.
Past attempts by watchdog groups to persuade the regulatory commission to require reactors to protect against such attacks have been met with industry resistance and have proved largely unsuccessful. However, Kuperman suggested that the federal government could play a role in providing such defenses directly, rather than by placing the burden entirely on nuclear energy utilities.
Industry has bristled at some past efforts by the government to provide this form of assistance, though, Kuperman said. His report cites an incident in which the Homeland Security Department deemed the water intake structure at the Millstone nuclear power plant in Connecticut to be a vulnerability and offered to provide protective barriers for free. The privately run facility rejected the DHS offer, Kuperman said, noting that the barriers might have added to the plant operator’s maintenance costs.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the atomic power industry, responded to the report on Thursday with a blog post asserting that nuclear plants “are widely acknowledged to be the best-defended facilities among the nation’s critical infrastructure.”
The nuclear sector’s lobbying arm argued that the FBI and Homeland Security Department share this position, but provided only links to the federal entities’ Internet home pages rather than to specific government reports supporting the claim.
“Approximately 9,000 extremely well-armed and highly trained security officers defend the nation’s 62 nuclear power plant sites,” the NEI response added. “This is an increase of approximately 60 percent in the size of nuclear plant security forces since 9/11.”
The industry group said, however, that the type of attack that Kuperman’s report addresses would constitute “an enemy-of-the-state incursion within our country,” for which it is not “the obligation of any electric utility to defend against.” This, instead, is a “job for the highest levels of federal national security,” the group said.