NOW with Bill Moyers

Transcript, January 14, 2005


Our nuclear power plants. We've got to be strict about terrorism in these uncertain times. New security plans are secret, and citizens just want to know are we safe enough?

ROCHELLE BECKER: They have hired more guns and guards. And more guns and guards would not have stopped 9/11. And more guns and guards will not secure this nuclear plant.

BRANCACCIO: And a conversation with a former U.S. Marine about a battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East that is only just beginning.

JOSH RUSHING: This war is about more than Iraq. The fodder that feeds the fires of 9/11 is the Arab perspective. There's no greater shaper that we have access to than Al-Jazeera.

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW on the road in Central California. Just up the coast here is the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. The government says it has evidence that terrorists have targeted nuclear plants but government regulators say they have upgraded security at the plants since 9/11. But they've done so under a shroud of secrecy. Residents here say that's not good enough. Producer Peter Meryash and I looked into these security concerns and what we're about to tell you is nothing the terrorists don't already know.

It's an open secret, in fact, that terrorists have nuclear power plants in their sights.

PRESIDENT BUSH (2002 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS): We have found diagrams of American nuclear power plants...

BRANCACCIO: President Bush warned as much in his 2002 State of the Union address. Then, in the 9-11 Commission Report, we learned the original terrorist plot involved "a total of ten aircraft to be hijacked, nine of which would crash into targets on both coasts" including "nuclear power plants." And this past summer, the FBI issued a bulletin to state and local law enforcement that Al-Qaeda was still intent on attacking targets including, there it is again, nuclear power plants.

All this has residents who live near the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in California worried that terrorists might set their sights here.

ROCHELLE BECKER: There's ways to fly in. There's ways to hike in. There's ways to drift by. I mean, if I can come up you know, ten, 12 scenarios and I don't even own a squirt gun, I would imagine somebody that really wants to do some damage can figure out how to do it.

BRANCACCIO: Rochelle Becker lives just thirteen miles downwind from the plant. She and others here are now asking tough questions:

How vulnerable are America's nuclear plants to terrorism?

What kinds of threats are plants expected to defend against?

And why were new security standards developed in secret and kept secret without input from the public?

Becker raised her family here and now enjoys visits from her two grand-daughters. She's also part of a nuclear watchdog group, Mothers for Peace and they worry if terrorists were to pull off an attack at a nuclear plant, it could be a catastrophe.

BECKER: San Luis Obispo is a bit of an isolated community, but less than 500 miles away to the south is Los Angeles. And, less than 500 miles away to the north is San Francisco. It could devastate California, which is the seventh largest economy in the world.

JEFF LEWIS, PACIFIC GAS & ELECTRIC: Well, it's understandable that people might be concerned, because in general people don't know how well nuclear power plants are built.

BRANCACCIO: Jeff Lewis says this power plant is up to meeting the terrorist threat. He's a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric, the owners of Diablo Canyon and he says the utility has spent $23 million dollars upgrading plant security since 9-11.

JEFF LEWIS: Nuclear power plants and the Diablo Canyon Power Plant-- it's like a fortress. These are the best guarded, best constructed, commercial facilities in the country.

BRANCACCIO: We were shown some of the plant's security measures, including new barricades, surveillance cameras and checkpoints.

Since 9-11, the company says it has increased its security staff by 30 percent, constantly training and testing officers on tactical weapons and procedures.

JEFF LEWIS: It's been almost a continual process of upgrading security, and we don't think it's over yet.

BRANCACCIO: There's no doubt that security at nuclear power plants around the country has been improved since 9-11. Overall, the industry says it has spent about 1.2 billion dollars on better defenses and more guards. All part of new standards issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

MICHAEL WEBER, DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE OF NUCLEAR SECURITY AND INCIDENT RESPONSE, NRC: NRC has worked with national experts after 9/11 to develop our security requirements. And we're quite confident that those security requirements are appropriate to protect the public.

BRANCACCIO: But critics say the NRC is underestimating the threat.

BETH DALEY, PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT (POGO): We know from talking to insiders that various intelligence analyses show that these plants should be protecting against a much more threatening scenario than the one that they're currently required to defend against.

BRANCACCIO: Beth Daley is with the Project On Government Oversight, a watchdog public advocacy group. She says the NRC's secret security standards require plants to defend against only a small force of attackers, far fewer than the nineteen involved in the 9-11 attacks. And she says, it's hard to believe, but nuclear power plants are still not required to defend against a 9-11 style attack from the air.

The nuclear industry counters that improved security at airports and on airplanes these days makes such an attack unlikely. And what's more …

JEFF LEWIS: These are not ordinary buildings. To get a better idea you have to understand that we're looking at walls on these containment domes that are three and a half feet thick with six layers of two and a quarter inch rebar — that's over a foot of steel. These are the strongest buildings that man has created, and the analysis has shown that-- that they will stand up to the impact of a large aircraft.

BRANCACCIO: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission agrees.

MICHAEL WEBER: It is unlikely that an air attack would both damage the core and cause a large-scale radiation release.

BRANCACCIO: Michael Weber is the Deputy Director of the Office Of Nuclear Security And Incident Response at the NRC.

BRANCACCIO: You could fly a plane right into one of those. And we shouldn't worry about radiation being released?

MICHAEL WEBER: The likelihood of such an attack is low. Beyond that, the likelihood of success is low.

BRANCACCIO: Critics, however, are not convinced — they point to an alarming study done for the German government. This study found that jetliners crashing into a nuclear reactor could crack into the containment dome, letting deadly radiation out. And terrorists may not even have to crack open those domes to do real damage.

ROCHELLE BECKER: There's heavy, thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls over the reactors themselves. But, between the reactors sits the soft underbelly of the nuclear industry. And, that's the spent fuel pools.

BRANCACCIO: After nuclear fuel is used up, it is really hot and really radioactive. So when the fuel rods are taken out of the reactors, they are placed in deep pools of cooling water known as spent fuel pools.

There are spent fuel pools at every one of the one hundred three nuclear reactors across the country where more than forty-four thousand metric tons of radioactive waste have been building up for decades.

All those pools lie outside the containment domes. Most, like the ones at diablo canyon, are buried in the ground. But at thirty-two nuclear plants, mostly on the East Coast, the pools are not buried at all instead, they're elevated above ground. The fear is, if terrorists were ever able to drain the cooling water from the pools.

ROCHELLE BECKER: You don't have a blow up. You don't have a meltdown. What you have is a fire that you can't contain that is full of radioactive smoke. It is a frightening situation. They don't know how to deal with it. So, they say, "It can't happen."

BRANCACCIO: The NRC says the release of radiation from a spent fuel pool is unlikely.

MICHAEL WEBER (NRC): It's important to remember the spent fuel pools where the spent fuel is stored are very robust structures. They are typically well within the plant. There's safety programs in place to protect that spent fuel.

BRANCACCIO: So, could all this talk about terrorist attacks just be the latest tactic of anti-nuclear activists?

BRANCACCIO: Is that the case with you, Rochelle? That essentially you just can't stand nuclear power as an idea. And that the terrorist concerns are really just another excuse to oppose the plants?

ROCHELLE BECKER: They're not another excuse. They're another reason. And, I think those aren't the same word. I think that the biggest problem at a nuclear power plant is what we are leaving our children: high-level, radioactive waste. That is not the legacy that anyone should be leaving. The National Academy of Sciences says this has to be isolated for 300,000 years.


ROCHELLE BECKER: The waste. So, it's subject to terrorism, earthquakes, human error for 300,000 years.

So, yes, I would love to see this nuclear power plant shut down. I would never lie to anybody and say that's not what I would really like. But you shut it down tomorrow and you have 20 years worth of high-level radioactive waste sitting there that needs to be secured.

BRANCACCIO: Becker and many here at this Mothers for Peace meeting say there's good reason to distrust the assurances of the NRC and the industry. They say when construction started at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant in the 1960s no one knew there was an earthquake fault nearby.

ROCHELLE BECKER: You cannot find a worse place to store high level radioactive waste than the seismically active coast of California.

BRANCACCIO: It took geologists from an oil company to bring that information to everyone's attention.

ROCHELLE BECKER: And did the NRC say; Oh, my God! Thank you so much. We almost finished building a nuclear plant right there in that-- on that site.

They said; Nope, couldn't be. Just can't possibly be. We had to raise thousands of dollars again and force the NRC to admit that there was a 7.5 magnitude earthquake fault 2 1/2 miles from the plant. And the plant had to be redesigned.

It's always the public. The public watchdog. There is nothing more important to a democracy than the public looking out to protect themselves.

BRANCACCIO: But now secrecy has made that very hard, say critics who point out the NRC developed new security standards without public input.

BETH DALEY (POGO): Problems and weaknesses are really allowed to fester behind a door of secrecy. We found over and over again that it takes vigorous public debate to move agencies in the direction that they should be going to effectively protect the public.

ROCHELLE BECKER: And we have to speak up and we have to speak up every single day.

BRANCACCIO: So Becker, along with other public advocates, took the NRC to court, demanding a more open process.

ROCHELLE BECKER: If you just cut off the public process altogether and say: Those people don't know enough to tell us anything. Then you're missing those little pieces that could be very valuable and could make the difference between a secure plant and an insecure plant.

BRANCACCIO: The NRC says it did consult national security experts and law enforcement agencies in developing their new rules but that it has to be careful not to disclose too much to the public.

BRANCACCIO: It's hard for some members of the community, though. Because. ultimately in the end, they hear the NRC saying, "Just trust us." Are you really just asking us just to trust you?

MICHAEL WEBER, NRC: We welcome the comments from the public. We want to get that feedback that's important to us. It's part of what democracy is all about. But we can't take that to the extent that through those processes we would somehow disclose information that could be used against the United States. The NRC is committed to protecting that information.

BRANCACCIO: Even so, the NRC now promises, since that lawsuit, to consider public input about its security standards.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: But clearly, secrecy is important at some level. You don't want to create a process that gives a roadmap to bad guys about how to attack these plants.

ROCHELLE BECKER: Oh, we couldn't agree with you more. We don't want the keys to the security lock. What we want to know is that lock works.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: One way to find out whether "the lock works" … is by testing it. And that's just what happens at nuclear power plants.

To test security, the government requires mock drills like this one conducted in 1999 where attackers try to break in to see how well the facilities are defended. The tests have since been updated, and the government requires they be conducted more frequently.

But what's setting off alarms is the company hired by the nuclear industry to carry out these drills is the same company which provides security at about half of the nuclear power plants around the country, the Wackenhut Corporation which, in effect, will now be testing itself. With millions of dollars in security contracts at stake, critics say it's a clear conflict of interest.

BETH DALEY (POGO): The conflicts of interest in and of itself would be an outrage, but to add insult to injury, Wackenhut was caught cheating on these tests down at a government nuclear facility in Tennessee.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: At the Oak Ridge Weapons Plant in Tennessee, the Department of Energy's Inspector General found that two Wackenhut employees "… were inappropriately permitted to view …" test information in advance of security drills … and concluded "… the test results were … tainted and unreliable."

Wackenhut denies cheating, and claims that exercise was not a real test. What's more, the company says, that incident at Oak Ridge involved a different corporate division. And the NRC, which oversees the tests, says safeguards are now in place and promises to closely monitor Wackenhut's performance.

MICHAEL WEBER, (NRC): We plan the exercises. We run the exercises. And at the end, we evaluate the exercises. So, we're confident that collectively, the set of actions that we take, provides that adequate oversight.

BRANCACCIO: But even if those security tests come off without a hitch, there's one more thing to consider. The NRC now says how well each plant does on the test will be kept secret.

BRANCACCIO: If for some reason, that plant should not do well, the local community doesn't really get to find out. That's not a problem?

MICHAEL WEBER: The Commission decided that those sorts of results, because they could disclose security information, would no longer be available to the public. We do share security results with local and state law enforcement officials that have a role to play in ensuring the protection of those sites.

ROCHELLE BECKER: We don't know-- wanna know how they failed. But we wanna know that they're at least able to pass their report card. And so far, we don't know that. And it's looking like they're not gonna ever tell us.

JOSH RUSHING: I Googled my name and Sundance, and this movie pops up, CONTROL ROOM. And I thought, I've never heard of CONTROL ROOM.

BRANCACCI0: Josh Rushing was a spokesman for the U.S. Marines during the Iraq war. He had just found out that he unwittingly played an important role in a documentary about the Arabic language TV station Al-Jazeera.

That award winning documentary is airing on the Sundance Channel on January 24. And when it was shown at the Sundance Festival last year, Rushing, who had served as the military's surprisingly sympathetic liaison to Al-Jazeera found himself at the center of a raging debate: Was the Arab news channel a propaganda tool of America's enemies, or a valuable shaper of public opinion too powerful for the U.S. to ignore?

Josh Rushing, welcome to NOW.

JOSH RUSHING: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: So when you found yourself talking quite regularly as a spokesman for the military, often on Al Jazeera--


DAVID BRANCACCIO: What was your rank?

JOSH RUSHING: I was a First Lieutenant at the time. I was the junior spokesperson in the office. When I went over to Iraq, I actually read a book, called IRAQ FOR DUMMIES, I'd recommend it to anyone.

And I was also trying to learn to speak Arabic. Well, on a base over there, no one speaks Arabic on base. They're all third country nationals. They come from Bangladesh and other places. So when Al Jazeera showed up with its group of engineers, I was like great, finally I can someone-- I can learn from. So I would kind of go by a few times a day and I would learn a new word and I'd go try it on them later in conversation.

And that developed a rapport between me and the Al-Jazeera guys. So when it came time to divide up accounts, it was just kind of a natural fit. Well, give Al-Jazeera to Rushing. And really, I think that's how much consideration went into it. Whereas now, looking back on it, I think Al-Jazeera may be-- it's-- it may be a more important front in the war on terror than Iraq was.

I mean this is where you address 40 million Arabs. It's outside of the mosque, it's the largest shaper of Arab opinion and perspective in the world. So it's too important to ignore.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: I mean this seems like madness in a sense.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: Maybe it's just in retrospect. I mean-- should-- with no disrespect to you, Josh.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: Shouldn't they have had somebody with some skill who could do this in a more nuanced way?

JOSH RUSHING: Absolutely. Absolutely. I've said this over and over again. That while I tried to do the best job I could, to not-- I guess-- demean the efforts that I had there, but they should have had someone who was an expert in the region who spoke the language. Who could hear the question and, - you know,- the way the reporter was asking it. Not the way it was being translated. I couldn't agree with you more.

But if you look at the culture that starts at the top. Just go to Secretary Rumsfeld and look at the culture there. He-- he says publicly-- it's in the movie, CONTROL ROOM, he says, "Al-Jazeera, they lie, they lie."

DONALD RUMSFELD CLIP FROM CONTROL ROOM: "Al-Jazeera has a pattern of playing propaganda over and over and over again. What they do when a bomb goes down they grab some children and some women and pretend the bomb hit those women and children."

JOSH RUSHING: "They take a bombed out building and put a crying woman inside and say her family was in it." Well, there were a lot of families in those bombed out buildings. So the chances are she's probably not lying. I mean we have to acknowledge the ugly face the war has on it. But when you have that kind of mentality, so if they lie that much, why should we deal with them. I mean there were points, many, during the war, where senior officers were just like, Let's not give them any interviews. No interviews for Al-Jazeera. We don't wanna talk to them.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Now you can't argue with a superior officer but could you have some discussion with him?

JOSH RUSHING: Oh, absolutely. I did argue. I wrote a point paper on it. I said this war is about more than Iraq. The fodder that feeds the fires of 9/11 is the Arab perspective. There's no greater shaper that we have access to than Al-Jazeera. It's too important to ignore. But the fact is I never could gain them greater access than me.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Yeah, somebody questioned your loyalty a little bit? For advocating that you give better access to a network.

JOSH RUSHING: To Al-Jazeera.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: --that reaches-- tens of millions.

JOSH RUSHING: And you gotta realize, I'm a 14-year Marine. I joined when I was 17 years old. Active duty the whole time. This isn't my first deployment. I've missed more holidays from family than I can count. I volunteered to get over in this war, because it's something that I believed in at the time. And he's questioning my loyalty. It was unbelievable. But it's happened-- it's happened since, by reporters saying, well, you've befriended Al-Jazeera, and Al-Jazeera's befriended Al Qaeda. So aren't you a little close to sleeping with the enemy?

DAVID BRANCACCIO: And you said what?

JOSH RUSHING: Oh that's such a stupid simplistic way to look at it. I haven't befriended Al-Jazeera. I don't get in my pajamas and call them at night. What I'm advocating, is they're too important to ignore. And the fact that you say Al-Jazeera has befriended Al Qaeda is ignorant. If you were in Al Qaeda's shoes, you too would send your tapes to Al-Jazeera. Because that's what everyone is watching. It's just a completely oversimplistic way to look at the entire situation.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Yet, you do say they're biased, right?

JOSH RUSHING: Oh, Al-Jazeera is biased.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: They're anti American, would you say?

JOSH RUSHING: Yeah, anti American. I recently sat on a panel with one of their reporters. And he was asked the question about why they didn't show the Margaret Hassan tape. Which is Margaret Hassan, an Irish born, married to Iraq-- an Iraqi citizen who lived there for 30 years, working with their charity groups. She's kidnapped by the insurgency, shot in the head. On video. Al-Jazeera, who has shown at the very same week of the Hassan video release, they showed the Marine in the Mosque in Fallujah shooting an unarmed man. Over and over, with his face and name. But they chose not to show the Margaret Hassan video.

I mean it was a real anomaly, and there must be a reason there. And he was asked about this, which I thought was a great question. I was sitting right next to him. And he said the editors at Al-Jazeera believe that their audience is sympathetic towards the insurgency, and they thought it would be too upsetting. It was a public acknowledgement that their audience is sympathetic to the insurgency in Iraq. And so the editors pick and choose what information to allow the audience to have.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: They must love you on Fox News now, though, because there's the famous clip. Where you're-- there are comparisons made.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: That you make between Fox News and Al-Jazeera.


JOSH RUSHING IN CONTROL ROOM: "When I watch Al-Jazeera I can tell what they're showing and I can tell what they're not showing. And I can tell what they're not showing by choice. Same thing when I watch Fox. On the other side of the spectrum, I know which of the stories we put out that they're picking up on and which one's their not giving much balance. It benefits Al-Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism same as it benefits Fox to play to American patriotism. Because that's their demographic audience and that's what they want to see."

JOSH RUSHING: It's kind of interesting, the Fox clip. I actually went on Fox and I've not only been critical in terms of comparing them to Al-Jazeera-- and I don't think that's a bad comparison. I don't think that's very critical.

I think critical of them, where they have a culture where they can't be critical of the military. And the Bush administration, I think, recognizes that. And so often, they'll push down messages for military guys to put out instead of the administration flacks.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Did you see this or--

JOSH RUSHING: Well, I think I did it. I think by having me argue why we go to war instead of the administration, it became this-- oh-- well, if he says it, you know, because it's kind of sacred cow if the military says it. And I blamed Fox a lot for not being more critical of the military.

Now I think military is a great job. And I particularly loved the Marine Corps and will always love the Marine Corps.

But I think it's a healthy environment to have a media that's critical of it. To ask the tough questions.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Take me back to the story. So, you find out that you're in this film that's getting widespread attention.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: Turned out to be a pretty big documentary film.


DAVID BRANCACCIO: Not quite FAHRENHEIT 9/11, but right up there perhaps. Did that actually land you in hot water?

JOSH RUSHING: I got silenced. I-- the Marine Corps said, "If a reporter puts a microphone to your face, walk away silently. You are not allowed to speak to the press."

DAVID BRANCACCIO: That was the specific order to you?

JOSH RUSHING: That was the specific order. Wow. I'm not giving away national secrets. I'm not saying anything that's classified. Why can't I share my opinion? As an American citizen, why can't I say how I feel about these issues?

DAVID BRANCACCIO: But, ultimately, you opted to part company with the Marine Corps.

JOSH RUSHING: I did. I resigned my commission-- after 14 years.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: After 14, that's quite a step. That's not quite 20, as I understand the structure of the military, and 20's what you want.

JOSH RUSHING: Well, if you want a pension-- if you want any kind of retirement-- if you wanna leave with any kind of medical coverage or any pay, then you have to stay 20. But, I didn't join the Marine Corps for a pension, I joined because my father raised my sister and I that you have to serve your nation in some capacity as a teacher, military, lawyer, or, I mean, a cop, fireman, whatever it is. For at least two years, you've gotta serve your nation. So really the same set of principals that led me into the military were the exact same set of principals that led me out of it.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Josh Rushing. Thank you very much.

JOSH RUSHING: Thank you so much for having me on.

BRANCACCIO: Join us next week when NOW goes back on the road or rather, on the water… fifteen years after Congress ordered the government to study mercury pollution, we're still eating the toxin via fish.

JOAN DAVID: Matthew's first test which was done in January was twelve a half times the FDA safety level.

BRANCACCIO: So what's the government doing about this under-reported threat? We'll hear from a well-known environmentalist with a very personal stake in the outcome: Robert Kennedy Jr.

ROBERT KENNEDY JR.: My levels are double what would be considered safe

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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