The more than 100 nuclear reactors across the United States are inadequately prepared to repulse terrorist attacks, a new report warns.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, presently requires that energy plants are capable of preventing attacks carried out by five or six people, according to the report, entitled “Protecting US Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack.”
The report, prepared by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas, focuses on the terrorist attacks of 2001, and warns the NRC to prepare for something much bigger down the road.
The combined public and private security provided at the US’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors and three research reactors “is inadequate to defend against a maximum, credible, non-state adversary,” the researchers said, adding that private-sector nuclear facilities remain “less protected than government facilities that face similar risks of theft of fissile material or radiological sabotage, which makes no sense.”
There also remains the risk of attacks from “high-powered sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades,” the researchers said.
The report also draws particular attention to security at three research reactors, including one in Maryland that is situated 24 miles from the White House. These facilities are powered by highly-enriched uranium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons if the supplies fell into the hands of terrorists.
The US government has made some progress since September 11, 2001, when nuclear plants only had to protect against attacks by three people, according to Alan Kuperman, the project coordinator and a co-author of the report.
“That is a good sign of progress, but that does not address the concern we have about nuclear reactors,” Kuperman said.
Since 2001, the US nuclear industry has spent over $2 billion on enhanced security, the report said, adding “it is difficult to know if those enhancements have been adequate.”
A spokesman for the nuclear energy sector’s trade agency, the Nuclear Energy Institute, told Reuters that security at US nuclear facilities had improved markedly since 9/11, with a total of 9,000 armed officers guarding them.
But according to the report’s authors, even that seemingly robust number of officers would not be enough to fight off a well-coordinated terrorist attack.
Prior to the revisions following the 9/11 attacks, “the numbers (of anticipated terrorists attacking a nuclear site) were kept relatively low because intelligence agencies generally assumed that they themselves were capable of detecting conspiracies of more than a few members.”
That assumption, the report says, was proven wrong by the events of 9/11 when 19 hijackers, using commercial jets as weapons of mass destruction, successfully staged terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC.
The NRC slammed the report, which was requested by the Pentagon, as a “rehash of arguments from a decade ago,” when the country was on high alert following the deadliest attacks on American soil.
“The report contains no new information or insight,” David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman, told Reuters. He said the nuclear watchdog had bolstered security requirements for commercial nuclear power plants and was confident that these were adequately protected.
The question now is how the US government, which has been forced to trim back on federal programs in the aftermath of the economic crisis, will be able to foot the bill for more security at America’s nuclear energy plants.