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Sitting ducks? Porous security makes nuclear power plants inviting targets

Monday, September 17, 2001

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In February 1993 -- 19 days before militant Muslim terrorists first attacked the World Trade Center in New York City by exploding bombs in its underground parking garage -- other terrorists associated with that group practiced a nighttime mock assault on an electric substation in Perry County, 30 miles west of the Three Mile Island Nuclear power plant in Harrisburg.

At Three Mile Island, truck barriers were installed only after an intruder in 1993 crashed into the plant's turbine building. (Tim Shaffer/Associated Press)

In an unrelated incident that same 1993 weekend, an intruder deliberately crashed a car through a door at TMI's turbine building, eventually stopping 63 feet inside the building.

'Highest level' security

In the wake of terrorist attacks that toppled the World Trade Center buildings in New York City and gouged a hole into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., security was tightened at the 103 nuclear power plants in the United States, including Beaver Valley, Three Mile Island and three others in Pennsylvania.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that the power plants increase security to the "highest level," details of which are classified.

"While there's been no credible general or specific threats," Diane Screnci, a spokeswoman for the NRC, said, "the recommendation was considered prudent, given the acts of terrorism."

And Pennsylvania State Police were deployed as a precaution at the entrances to Beaver Valley Power Station in Shippingport, 22 miles northwest of Pittsburgh; Three Mile Island near Harrisburg; Limerick in Montgomery County; Susquehanna/PPL Electric in Luzerne County and the Peach Bottom Power Station in York County.

But that response is not good enough for Three Mile Island Alert, a citizen's nuclear watchdog group formed in 1977. It claims that nuclear power plants remain extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

"We are highly critical of the NRC for just recommending and not ordering all nuclear plants to increase security to the highest level," said Scott Portzline, chairman of Alert's security committee.

Coincidental to the terrorist attacks last week, Portzline said Alert has formally petitioned the NRC to issue a rule directing utilities to post guards at the entrances of their nuclear power stations.

The absence of such a rule makes the nuclear plants "soft targets" for terrorists, he contended.

"Posting armed guards at the entrances of nuclear power plants serves as a physical deterrent, would 'harden' those sites and demonstrates to local communities that the NRC and the nuclear industry are serious about public health and safety," Portzline said. "It's hard to imagine that nuclear plant entrances remain unguarded in the 21st century.

Not enough

Although U.S. nuclear power plants probably have the world's best safeguards, Alert is not the only group that says they need to get much better and fast.

Physicians for Social Responsibility has called nuclear power plants "land mines waiting to be stepped upon."

And the Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nuclear non-proliferation group, said that nuclear power plants are vulnerable to terrorists, and a successful attack that breaches a reactor's containment systems could cause severe panic.

"Potentially, it could be many times worse than what we've seen [in New York] because it could result in radiation and fallout over a vast area that would have a devastating economic effect," said Tom Clements, head of the Institute.

While a thermonuclear explosion is not possible, a powerful steam explosion in a plant's containment building could disperse enormous amounts of radioactive particles into the air.

Clements said nuclear facilities are just as vulnerable to airborne threats -- from missiles or crashing jetliners -- as was the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.

"Aerial attack is not really considered," he said, "and we think that the plants are vulnerable, even though they have a thick containment dome."

In 1993, Portzline, who has testified before the NRC and U.S. Senate on nuclear power plant issues, rented a small plane and flew at low altitudes over the TMI containment dome and the adjacent Susquehanna River.

"I wanted to demonstrate the possibility of an air attack," he said. "I believe a boat attack is also possible."

Rings of protection

Nuclear plants have three security zones -- the outermost "owner-controlled area," the middle "protected area," and the innermost "vital area," where safety systems and fuel rods are located.

Nuclear power plants are required to employ site protection officers who are usually stationed in the protected area. That's also where truck bomb barriers -- required by the NRC only after the 1993 "vehicle intrusion" at TMI -- can be found.

Portzline said most of those truck bomb barriers, including 12 of 14 installed at TMI in 1994, are so close to the vital areas of nuclear power plants that an Oklahoma City-sized truck bomb could cause a catastrophe. One of those barriers at TMI is only 10 feet from a vital area building.

In addition, Portzline said, security at TMI's main entrance has decreased over the years. During the 1970s, the north entrance was guarded and vehicles were required to stop for a credentials check before entering the site. In 1993, a truck bomb barrier was installed, but it is unmanned and is left open more than half the time. A parking garage-style barrier lifts automatically to approaching vehicles.

"I don't think they're doing better," he said. "TMI's new owners have reduced the guard force. I think they're doing a lot of cost cutting."

"We meet or exceed all federal requirements for security," said Ralph DeSantis, a spokesman for Exelon Nuclear, co-owner of TMI with AmerGen Energy Co. "We are in a heightened state of security awareness and are in regular contact with the NRC."

DeSantis said the containment buildings that house the reactor and equipment are "robust, sturdy structures" built with 4-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls to withstand hurricanes, airborne objects and airplane impacts.

He said extending security to the entrances in the owner-controlled area has been an issue at many nuclear plants, but few, if any, have guards or barriers in that outer area.

Dave Poeppelmeir, a spokesman for FirstEnergy, the Akron, Ohio-based company that operates the Beaver Valley Nuclear Plant, said security was increased at the plant even before the NRC issued its recommendation, but he declined to give any details.

"We're reviewing our procedures and working with the NRC," Poeppelmeir said. "If the NRC requires that we do something, we will meet those increased standards, but I'm not going to get into any specifics about our security."

But Portzline said tougher security measures -- including some that would be highly visible -- are long overdue to deter terrorists from planning to bomb the nuclear plants.

In an eerily prophetic news release sent the day before Tuesday's terrorist attacks, Portzline explained why TMI Alert was asking the NRC to require entrance guards:

"The 1990s have shown that terrorism is no longer just about instilling fear or gaining attention for a particular ideology. Some terrorists are now seeking a large body count. Clearly, adequate protection of nuclear power plants is a matter of national security."

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