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Nuclear reactor towers
Science and Health:
Nuclear Plant Safety
More on This Story:
Monitoring Nuclear Reactors

NOW first reported on the heightened environmental risks of a post 9/11 world in 2003. That report focused on attempts to upgrade security at the nation's chemical plants. NOW turns its attention to the risks posed by our nuclear power plants. Potentially deadly targets for terrorists, America's nuclear power plants have been the focus of increased security efforts since 9/11. 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 on better defenses and more guards. All these changes are a part of new security standards issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Currently, there are 103 operating commercial nuclear reactors producing electricity in the United States, located at 64 sites in 31 states. Critics believe the new security measures don't go far enough to protect these nuclear plants from terrorist attack. Of particular concern is the nuclear waste stored at every one of these sites outside the thick containment domes. In most cases, that waste is kept in spent fuel pools buried in the ground. But at 32 reactors, the waste is kept in spent fuel pools which are elevated above ground. Critics worry if terrorists are able to drain the cooling water from these spent fuel pools, it could result in a fire and the release of a radioactive cloud.

While the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) say the nation's nuclear reactors are up to meeting the terrorist threat, critics say that the public can't be sure because the details are shrouded in secrecy. Who's watching the power plants? Find out more below.


Today, nuclear power plants — the second largest source of electricity in the U.S. — supply about 20% of the nation's electricity each year. Nuclear technology uses the energy released by splitting the atoms of certain elements. First developed in the 1940s, research initially focused on producing bombs by splitting the atoms of either uranium or plutonium. In the 1950s, attention turned to other uses of nuclear fission, notably for power generation. Today, the world produces as much electricity from nuclear energy as it did from all sources combined in 1960. Nuclear energy's by-products, especially the radioactive waste which remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years, is seen by many as posing as great a threat as do plant accidents.

The primary agency charged with nuclear power plant security is the The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC regulates U.S. commercial nuclear power plants and the civilian use of nuclear materials. The Commission has a section on its Web site dedicated to Nuclear Security and Safeguards post 9/11. You can report a safety or security concern involving a nuclear facility or radioactive materials on the NRC Web site. Find out if there are any nuclear reactors in your area by consulting the Department of Energy's list of "Nuclear Power Plants Operating in the United States," organized by state.

The Current Debate

NOW's report on nuclear plant safety details the debate over both plant security and information secrecy. You can learn more from the sites listed below.

Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility
The Alliance is a California group which opposes license renewals for the state's nuclear power plants and the storage of additional nuclear waste. The site presents information on options for energy generation.

Congressman Edward J. Markey: Nuclear Power Plant Safety
Massachusetts Democrat Edward J. Markey has been bringing nuclear plant safety to the attention of Congress. His Web site contains a number of press releases and correspondence between the Congressman and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Department of Energy Inspector General's Report: Protective Performance Test Improprieties
The DOE Inspector General report examined a security test at the Y-12 National Security Complex, which oversees uranium enrichment and dismantling nuclear weapons at the Oak Ridge facility in Tennessee. The report found that two Wackenhut (security staff) employees "were inappropriately permitted to view" test information in advance of security drills and concluded that "the test results were…tainted and unreliable." Wackenhut claims that the test was not a force on force test, but was staged to test the computer systems. Furthermore, they dispute the link to the new contract to do the force on force testing at all of the nation’s privately run nuclear power plants since the staff at the Y-12 facility is a different department of the parent company, Group 4 Securicor.

Greenpeace presents on its Web site the correspondence between the environmental group and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address statement asserting that : "diagrams of American nuclear power plants" had been found in Al-Qaeda dominated areas. Greenpeace has an extensive collection of position papers and other information on nuclear plant safety, and on the dangers surrounding the transport of spent nuclear fuels.

Mothers for Peace
San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace is a non-profit organization concerned with the local dangers involving the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, and with the dangers of nuclear power, weapons and waste on national and global levels.

Nuclear Energy Institute
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the policy organization of the nuclear energy and technologies industry and participates in both the national and global policy-making process. NEI’s objective is to ensure the formation of policies that promote the beneficial uses of nuclear energy and technologies in the United States and around the world. The Safety and Security section of the NEI's Web site presents information on post 9/11 security, emergency drills and plant oversight.

Pacific Gas & Electric Diablo Canyon Fact Sheet
Information provided by the company about safety and operations at the plant featured in NOW's broadcast.

Project on Government Oversight: Homeland Security (POGO)
POGO is a watchdog group "committed to exposing waste, fraud and corruption in the following areas: defense, energy & environment, contract oversight and open government." Their homeland security archives presents the group's information on nuclear plant safety and also collects media reports on the issue.

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