John Funk / The Cleveland Plain Dealer – 2013-04-05 01:54:53
Federal Security Concerns Since 9/11 Have Turned US Nuclear Power Plants into Armed Fortresses
John Funk / The Cleveland Plain Dealer
(August 6, 2011) — As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers approaches, it is clear to federal authorities that nuclear power plants are high on the target list.
Less than three weeks ago, the Department of Homeland Security warned electric utility companies that terrorists were likely targeting their reactors — and using power plant workers to gather intelligence.
“Violent extremists have, in fact, obtained insider positions,” the agency warned in a note to power plant operators that a spokesman later tried to downplay as “routine.”
The alert came after federal intelligence analysts examining documents collected from Osama bin Laden’s compound learned that al Qaeda hoped to launch a massive attack to mark the anniversary.
The Homeland Defense alert was nothing new to the industry, which has had to pour billions into the federally mandated secret security measures over the decade while most Americans have forgotten all about terrorism and fifth-column insurgents.
More than any other industry, the nuclear industry already reflects the new “cold war” that has diverted billions of dollars into defense and changed the very character of the business.
The nation’s 104 nuclear reactors once were the sites of frequent arranged public tours. Security guards policing their gates were friendly — occasionally even chatty.
The plants, after all, were a symbol of President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program that supplied equipment and information to schools, hospitals and research facilities throughout the world.
In the decade since the terrorist attacks, US nuclear plants have become fortresses, fenced in by miles and miles of razor wire, protected with cameras and other sensors the industry won’t talk about, and backed up by reinforced concrete walls.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency overseeing the industry, concentrated on safety before the 9-11 attacks.
These days the NRC works hand in hand with Homeland Security and also staffs an around-the-clock operations center with direct, secure connections to the Federal Aviation Administration and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and a dozen other agencies.
The nuclear power plants are armed to the teeth, guarded by a growing private army that has doubled in size to 9,500 since 9/11.
The once friendly guards have been replaced by well-armed “security personnel,” as they are called.
Trained to near-military standards, their mission is to repel intruders and, at all costs, keep them out of the protected area — the walled-off, reinforced grounds inside the fences where the reactor and critical equipment are located.
And the weapons are getting bigger. Congress authorized the use of automatic weapons in 2005. Think machine gun.
The government calls them “enhanced weapons” and has created a set of regulations to allow their use, one that takes into account state laws and the concerns of local and state law enforcement, as well as other federal agencies.
The industry points out that security guards had already been permitted to use guns that fire .50 caliber bullets.
Whatever weapons the guards have, the teams have to be sharp. They must defend the reactor against a highly trained paramilitary team every three years in mock attacks that always occur during the night.
Security expert Johnathan Tal, president of TalGlobal, a San Jose-based international security and risk management firm with thousands of corporate clients, said terrorist interest in nuclear facilities is very real and ongoing.
“Jesse James said he robbed banks because that was where the money was. Terrorists will try to blow up a nuclear plant because that is where the radiation is,” Tal said.
“Terrorists want to make a significant impact on the economy, on our psychology, the way we live our lives. A nuclear power plant is a big structure and considered safe. If you can blow one up, you achieve an economic impact and create a tremendous amount of fear.”
The defense buildup is a kind of new cold war. It has not only transformed the industry, but it is also very expensive.
“We now have spent well over $2 billion,” said Chris Earls, director of security for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. “This is above and beyond the year-to-year annual cost. This has been a huge investment in time and attention.”
Akron’s FirstEnergy Corp. alone has spent about $132 million over the decade since 9-11 complying with a steady stream of new NRC security regulations.
FirstEnergy owns Davis-Besse near Toledo; the Perry power plant, located 35 miles northeast of Cleveland; and the two-reactor Beaver Valley power station, 35 miles from Pittsburgh.
The company spent a key portion of the money on “enhanced training” for its expanding security forces, including weapons training,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Young. The company also “strengthened physical barriers.”
Young declined to reveal the size of the guard force except to say it is “very sizable.” She said a significant percentage of the force have military backgrounds or are currently in reserve units.
The NRC requires every power plant’s security forces to train regularly. It annually inspects them as well as overall defense plans and the physical security of each plant.
The three-year force-on-force war games are anything but play. A plant’s guards, armed with laser weapons, are pitted against similarly armed professional paramilitary squads.
Most members of the teams have military backgrounds. “They are former special forces, Seals, Delta Force, and Rangers,” said Earls of the NEI.
The force-on-force exercises always occur at night — in fact three consecutive nights during a scheduled week to test a plant’s three shifts.
On attack nights, the guards normally on duty are armed as usual, with live ammunition — just in case a real terrorist group attacks, said Holly Harrington, a spokeswoman for the NRC .
The plant guards therefore do know that an attack is coming, but not exactly when, and not where, she said.
“The mock attacks are also preceded by several weeks of table top exercises and other interaction with NRC,” said Harrington.
Earls said the whole exercise, including the preparations, can cost a utility up to $2 million.
If the plant’s security team fails, that’s recorded as a violation — one that can entail an unspecified fine. The NRC inspectors don’t leave until corrections are made. Then the plant has to endure another attack, said Harrington.
In its 2010 report to Congress on security at the nation’s nuclear plants, the NRC noted that 24 power plants were subjected to the force-on-force inspections. Twelve plants had no problems.
Of the other dozen, 10 plants had some problems and were cited. Two failed, meaning real attackers would probably have made it into the protected area, where the reactor, the control room, the steam turbine and generator, emergency equipment are located. The protected area is also where the spent or used fuel rods are kept in a deep pool of water, water that must be cooled.
In 2009, the NRC conducted force-on-force exercises at 22 plants and found three cases where “targets were not effectively protected.”
The NRC does not reveal the defensive weaknesses of any plant and does not reveal what power plants failed.
The agency and the industry continue to insist on the soundness of analytical studies done after the 9-11 attacks, which concluded that the heavy-walled buildings containing commercial reactors would withstand the impact of a jet liner.
But at the same time the NRC now requires that any power company building a new reactor will have to prove — with engineering detail — exactly how that the reactor will survive a hit by a large aircraft.
Even if existing reactor buildings can survive an air crash, critics such as David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, think the force of the shock waves from the impact of a large aircraft — wherever it hits — would probably knock out at least some emergency electrical systems. It’s an assertion that studies and calculations can’t easily disprove. That leaves preventing air attacks in the hands of the NORAD.
Mandating protection against an unseen threat — cyber attack — appears to have been developed more slowly. Reaction computer systems are not connected to the Internet. The agency will not even begin detailed inspections of every plant’s cyber defenses until next year.
Security upgrades, as extensive as they have been, will continue to expand as terrorists think up new strategies, say both the industry and the NRC.
The NRC is now considering new mandates to better enable the nuclear plants to survive natural disasters. The new rules were inspired by the reactor melt-downs in Fukushima, Japan, following the earthquake and tsunami in March.
Early recommendations from an NRC task force would require reactor operators to stock the plants with additional back-up, portable power generators, water pumps and other equipment on-site to help workers keep damaged reactors from overheating until electrical power for the major equipment could be restored.
The NRC quietly ordered extra emergency equipment be put in place in the months following the 9-11 attack. It ordered reactor operators to inspect that equipment and extra supplies earlier this year. The inspections turned up problems at some plants.
None of the proposed preparations to cope with a natural disaster or a terrorist attack are adequate, said Paul Gunter, director of the reactor oversight project for Beyond Nuclear, an anti-nuclear group.
“The fundamental issue is how can you make something that is inherently dangerous safe,” he challenged. “This is all spin. The vulnerability of nuclear power plants to the loss of offsite power remains an issue coming out of Fukushima as well as 9-11.”
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