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Science and Health:
Nuclear Plant Security
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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. In January 2005, NOW turned its attention to the potential terrorist theat at 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. 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. There's no doubt that security at nuclear power plants around the country has been improved since 9/11. As of January 2005, the industry said it has spent about $1.2 billion on better defenses and more guards. All these changes were a part of new security standards issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Since NOW's original broadcast the issue of nuclear plant security has remained in the news and on the agenda in Washington. A month after our broadcast, FBI Director Robert Mueller expressed security concerns about nuclear plants with the Senate. This past summer, Congressman Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, drew up tougher security standards for the plants to follow, some of which The Nuclear Regulatory Commission supported. The NRC then drew up their own rules which would require plants to anticipate smarter adversaries with more powerful weapons. But the number of attackers that plants must anticipate has not changed… it was far less than the nineteen involved in the 9/11 plot, according to watchdog groups. However, the NRC's standards still don't require nuclear plants to defend against a 9/11-style attack from an airplane, as Congress earlier recommended. The NRC says that airport and airline safety procedures adopted since 9/11 are the best defense against such attacks.

NOW's original report also touched on the issue the safety of spent fuel pools — nuclear waste stored outside the thick containment domes that house the reactors. 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.

Since NOW first reported on the concerns over spent fuel pools the National Academy Of Sciences has released a study which criticizes the NRC's plan to protect spent fuel pools, saying their effort "…has not been sufficient to adequately understand the vulnerabilities and consequences of [terrorist attacks]…" The Government Accountability Office also released a report in April, 2005, entitled "NRC Needs to Do More to Ensure that Power Plants Are Effectively Controlling Spent Nuclear Fuel," which said that spent fuel had gone missing at some plants and that the NRC needed a better system to keep track of spent fuel.

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 (PDF)
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.

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 owner of the Diablo Canyon plant on operation and safety.

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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