Pentagon-Sponsored Report: Civilian Nuclear Reactors at Risk of Attack

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Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
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Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Aug. 16, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

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.

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