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Danger
12.02.05
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BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS.

We look at how to make America safer.Why isn't the nuclear industry protecting reactors against a 9/11 style attack?

ROCHELLE BECKER

You can't tell me that a plane couldn't fly over or fly into that building.

BRANCACCIO: And, why isn't the gun industry doing more to keep guns away from criminals?

RICKER: The industry knows, and they've known for a long time, that there are bad guns dealers. There are bad distributors. And these people are the source of a majority of all crime guns.

BRANCACCIO: And…economic security: doesn't being safe and sound mean making enough money to live on?

KATICK: I mean- we're not supposed to raise a family on minimum wage, but here we are.


BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

What steps can our country take to make us truly safer? The answers might surprise you.

We have three different takes on this tonight but first, this fact. Around 6,000 people died around the world last year from terror attacks, according to the National Counterterrorism Center. That's a horrific number. But every year some thirty thousand people are killed by firearms in the United States alone. And recently the firearms lobby has pushed through Congress new laws that make it even harder to hold that industry accountable for guns used in crimes.

We first reported on the power of the gun lobby back in 2003. We found the gun industry has the means to stop gun sales to criminals if it wanted to.

Robert Ricker used to be one of the most powerful lobbyists in the gun world. He was the point man on Capitol Hill and on TV.

ROBERT RICKER [ABC NEWS January, 1999]: There is no manufacturer of any product that can guarantee that the end consumer is not going to misuse the product in some way.

BRANCACCIO: That was before he had a change of heart. After months of disagreeing privately with his colleagues, this insider turned into one of the industry's first whistleblowers. In April 2003, he told us something startling — that executives of America's leading gun companies could know which dealers were selling guns to criminals.

RICKER: The industry knows, and they've known for a long time, that there are bad guns dealers. There are bad distributors. And these people are the source of a large portion, or a majority of all crime guns.

BRANCACCIO: Tens of thousands of these so-called crime guns end up on the streets of cities and towns across America. But how do felons get their guns? One common method is called a "straw purchase". Watch this videotape of a police sting near Detroit. On the left, one of the undercover cops is posing as a "felon."

Now the laws say that a dealer cannot sell guns to anybody whom they have reason to believe is a felon. The "felon's" solution? He brings a buddy to buy the gun for him. And the salesman goes along. He even reminds them to lie.

FROM STING-VIDEO: "When the manager comes over to check this, it's your gun. OK, because the manager has to… This is called a straw purchase. It's highly illegal."

BRANCACCIO: And now the "felon" has his gun. To crack down on such illegal gun sales, the ATF — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — runs a national gun tracing system.

ATF AGENT: This is Lisa from ATF. I have a gun trace I need some help with, please.

BRANCACCIO: The ATF traces around two hundred thousand crime guns every year, collecting comprehensive information from local police and manufacturers.

Gun safety advocates argue that if gun manufacturers wanted to they could use that data to staunch the flood of crime guns by not selling to the small percentage of dealers who have a pattern of crooked sales.

Ricker says gun executives had access to this kind of information the entire time he was working for them.

RICKER: I would hear the horror stories they would tell about, well gee, we just, we were called last week by ATF and we found out that there was a gun dealer in Florida who purchased, you know, two or three hundred guns from us and you know what? His license wasn't valid and he went out and sold them on the street. I mean, these were topics of discussion at every board meeting, every major gathering of the industry.

BRANCACCIO: Lawrence Keane, an industry spokesperson, denies Ricker's charges.

LAWRENCE KEANE: The notion or the suggestion that the industry is willingly and knowingly selling guns to criminals is patently false. It's offensive. It's really an outrageous allegation. And it's just not true.

BRANCACCIO: Keane also says manufacturers do not have ready access to gun tracing data.

KEANE: Is there some way that the industry could know who those individuals are? And the answer to that question is only ATF only knows that information, not the manufacturers.

BRANCACCIO: As it turns out, manufacturers aren't anxious for anybody to get access to that information outside of the ATF. Last year, Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Kansas attached an amendment to an appropriations bill that successfully blocks any public disclosure of ATF gun tracing data. That made the gun industry quite happy. But gun safety groups charge that this ties the hands of local law enforcement agencies.

Ricker says it all comes down to profits. One study found that as many as 25% of all handguns sold in America end up being used in a crime.

RICKER: I don't think that they're… they're being forthright or honest with, uh… with the court or with the American public. They know that if they change the way things were done it would have a direct impact short-term on sales.

BRANCACCIO: With the firearms industry scoring big wins in Congress, cities, states and gun safety groups have turned to the courts to press for reforms through civil lawsuits. That's why the new immunity bill that President Bush signed into law was such a huge blow for gun safety advocates.

It's not yet clear how this will affect current cases. In the year 2000, New York City sued more than three dozen of the biggest gun manufacturers and distributors. It was supposed to advance to the trial stage. But armed by the immunity law, the industry rushed to dismiss the case. However, this week the judge ruled the case will go to trial. And Ricker is expected to be one of the witnesses.

RICKER: The industry ought to be able to stand up the American people and say listen, we're doing everything we possibly can do to try and prevent people who shouldn't have guns from getting their hands on guns.


BRANCACCIO:Our security trilogy now moves to economic security. For Penny Katick — a single working mom in Nevada — few things are more important. We got a lot of reaction when we met her last year. Katick was struggling to raise her family on little more than minimum wage. Since then, the costs of basic necessities like health care, fuel and utilities have skyrocketed, so we went back to see how Penny Katick was doing. The correspondent is Michele Mitchell.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Penny Katick works at a diner in Glendale, Nevada, only 45 minutes outside of Las Vegas, but a world away from the glitz of the strip. Last year we met the 40 year old single mother of three when she decided to vote for the first time in her life. It was an initiative on the Nevada ballot to raise the minimum wage that got her to the polls.

Penny Katick and her children, like almost 8 million other families in America, were living below the poverty level.

MICHELE MITCHELL: What don't the candidates understand about your life?

PENNY KATICK: How expensive everything is. Most people would think nothing of just stopping at the store on the way home and getting, you know, getting some milk and gas. For us it would be a gallon of milk and a gallon of gas is almost an hour's wages. And so when your son guzzles a gallon of milk and you think "No, that's supposed to last us for the rest of the week." Little things like that, but they don't realize how hard it is every day.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Penny Katick puts in more than a 40 hour work week but still struggles to meet expenses. Many mornings she wakes up at 3:30 to work the first shift, juggling daycare for her youngest child.

MICHELE MITCHELL: So, you've talked about how like you-you are living right on the edge. So, when you're looking at the start of that next month, is it, "Okay, this is going to be the month I get ahead?"

PENNY KATICK: You-you like to think that. But it just never happens. Something comes up like-like this last couple of months it was school clothes. If I was to get sick, yeah, we would just be-I don't know what we would do if I was to get sick. I can't. The kids aren't covered right now which scares the heck out of me.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Penny Katick's daily routine hasn't changed much in a year, but other things have. The diner's new owners have promoted her to assistant manager. She has also been given a raise. Katick now expects to earn about 18 thousand dollars a year — just around the poverty level.

PENNY KATICK: Rent's gone up. Food's gone up. The gas was getting so ridiculous there for a while that we were really conserving. Jeremy's trying to get his license so he-have to have a hundred hours of practice driving or whatever. He was like, "Well, we'll just drive around the block." No, don't do that-you know, you'll waste the gas. It's heartbreaking just to see that everything just keep going up and up and up except for our wages.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Just before the 2004 election we spoke to Nevada's Republican Lieutenant Governor Lorraine Hunt about the minimum wage issue.

LORRAINE HUNT: It's not meant to raise a family. It was never intended. When I hear statements like, "How can I raise a family of four on minimum wage?"-that's an inaccurate statement. It would be disingenuous. You're not supposed to raise a family on minimum wage.

PENNY KATICK: I mean- we're not supposed to raise a family on minimum wage, but here we are. You know?

MICHELE MITCHELL: In the 2004 election only Nevada and Florida had minimum wage initiatives on the ballot, and both passed.

LORRAINE HUNT: I'm a strong advocate of small businesses. And small businesses create the most jobs in the nation. They provide entry level, with unskilled labor, young people just getting out of school or in school. So, it's important to try to keep-to have a basic minimum wage.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Today Lorraine Hunt is planning a run for governor.

And Penny Katick is planning to vote again for increasing Nevada's minimum wage. The issue is back on the ballot in 2006.

RANDY ALEMAN: The minimum wage in Nevada, throughout the country, is really a joke. I mean, who can live on that minimum wage?

MICHELE MITCHELL: Randy Aleman and his partners are the new owners of the diner where Penny works.

RANDY: You can't keep employees at minimum wage. At least any that are worth anything. You've got to pay people more money because you can't live on minimum wage.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Randy Aleman has been in real estate for 23 years and has big plans for the area. When he took over he began by giving all his employees a raise. Why? It goes back to his childhood.

RANDY: I was one of three siblings, raised by a single mom who was a cocktail waitress and a camera girl at Caesar's Palace in the 1960s when she moved here. So, I mean I know what it's like to have a babysitter watching you. You know what I mean? While your mom's out trying to earn a living. And I know what it's like to be hungry. And I always remember that.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Today Penny's two eldest children work and help her pay the bills.

PENNY: Jeremy is 16-years-old. He eats a lot. He's a boy, growing boy. He spends a lot of his money on food for himself. A lot of it goes for his lunch money and stuff like that.

MICHELE MITCHELL: Penny's 19 year old daughter Heather graduated from high school last year and is still living at home. Every morning she travels 45 minutes in a commuter van to her job at an Indian casino. She is trying to figure out her future.

HEATHER KATICK: I'm working right now. Trying to get my own place. I graduated, so-I'm like-trying to save up my money and hopefully go back to school. And maybe like help my mom out along the way. You know? Once I'm successful.

PENNY: I want her to get out of here as soon as she can. Just because the longer she stays here, the more she's going to end up being stuck here, I think.

MICHELE MITCHELL: There is some good news. When we reported this story last year the transmission in her car had just died. Our viewers responded generously and she was able to buy a used Toyota.

Katick's biggest worry these days? Like 45 million other Americans she has no health insurance. But that's about to change. The diner's new owners have promised to provide it.

RANDY: If I have those things and I offer them to my employees then it's a way to keep them there. It's a way to keep them from leaving. And I have a better service to the customer when they come in.

PENNY: Oh, health insurance is going to be-make a big difference in-in everybody's-around here's-I mean, you can go to the doctor. I can get rid of this cold finally maybe. And, get antibiotics. I haven't had health insurance for like, 20 years. Something like that. It's been a long time.

MICHELE MITCHELL: For Penny Katick and the millions of other families living at the poverty level every little bit counts.

PENNY: We really don't try to see in the future too much. It's more of a day to day type thing. But, what are you going to do? Just keep plugging along.


BRANCACCIO: Here's a not-so-happy thought. Did you know that on 9-11, one of the hijacked aircraft heading for the World Trade Center flew directly over a nuclear power plant located just up the river over that way.

Just how safe are these facilities from terrorist attacks? Since 9-11, much of the information that would help answer that question is now classified and what we do know is not reassuring.

Back in January, we met Rochelle Becker, believe it or not a grandmother from San Luis Obispo, California. She was taking on a nuclear power plant, some thirteen miles up the road. She was concerned that Diablo Canyon wasn't adequately prepared for a terrorist attack.

ROCHELLE BECKER, MOTHERS FOR PEACE: 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, twelve 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: The threat of terrorism is still very real at Diablo Canyon and at nuclear plants across the country.

ROBERT MUELLER, FEBRUARY 16, 2005: Al Qaeda and the groups that support it are still the most lethal threat we face today.

BRANCACCIO: A month after our broadcast, FBI Director Robert Mueller shared his security concerns with the Senate and nuclear plants were high on his list.

Then just last week, this man, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, was convicted in federal court for aiding Al Qaeda… having taken orders from a top operative to scout nuclear plants in the U.S.

And last month, three members of an alleged terrorist group were arrested in Australia. Their apparent target: the country's only nuclear power plant. Police say that when the suspects were found near the reactor, a lock had been cut on the plant's access gate.

Back in January, we spoke to Michael Weber of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He told us about the government's new security standards for nuclear plants — requiring stronger defenses, more guards, and more guns.

MICHAEL WEBER, 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 a watchdog group, The Project On Government Oversight, had been informed by government intelligence reports that those standards were not adequate.

BETH DALEY, PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT: 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: This past summer, Congressman Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, drew up tougher security standards for the plants to follow. The NRC supports some of them. The rules they proposed this fall 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.

And the NRC's standards still don't require nuclear plants to defend against a 9/11-style attack from an airplane, as Congress recommended. The NRC says that airport and airline safety procedures adopted since 9/11 are the best defense.

What's more (and we're not saying anything the terrorists don't already know), nuclear plants are especially vulnerable to attack in one area.

ROCHELLE BECKER, MOTHERS FOR PEACE: 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 in the reactor, it is hot and radioactive. So when the fuel rods are taken out of the reactors, they are placed in deep basins of cooling water … known as spent fuel pools.

Those pools lie outside the steel-reinforced containment domes that house the reactors. The fear is, if terrorists were ever able to drain the cooling water from the pools.

ROCHELLE BECKER, MOTHERS FOR PEACE: 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.

BRANCACCIO: The NRC told us that the pools were well-protected.

MICHAEL WEBER, NRC: We ensure that the combination of safety and security measures is adequate to protect that spent fuel.

BRANCACCIO: But three months after he said that, a study by the National Academy of Sciences confirmed the neighbors' fears. Eighteen expert scientists criticized 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]…"

Back at Diablo Canyon, the plant's spent fuel pools will soon be filled to capacity so the plant's owner wants to build another storage facility on the site.

But the proposed location - a hillside facing the Pacific Ocean - worries Rochelle Becker's group, Mothers for Peace. They want the NRC to consider the risk of terrorist attacks in its environmental review but the NRC has refused. The NRC argues that the possibility of terrorism at any one facility is too remote and speculative to be considered. The say they've already dealt with the terror threat in their oversight of plant security.

So the mothers took them to court. During oral arguments this fall, one of the judges questioned the NRC about their rationale.

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, October 17, 2005:

JUDGE STEPHEN REINHARDT: I don't understand really what's so remote and speculative about the possibility of a terrorist attack. I thought that we were being warned all the time about the possibility of a terrorist attack. Isn't that what we get told constantly, by the government?

CHARLES E. MULLINS, NRC ATTORNEY: Not by us necessarily.

JUDGE REINHARDT: Well, by the President. Does your agency want to tell the public that it's remote that there will be a terrorist attack?

CHARLES E. MULLINS, NRC ATTORNEY: It is not… it is not reasonably foreseeable, your honor, that is, that is our position, that there will be a terrorist attack at Diablo Canyon or at any specific nuclear plant.

BRANCACCIO: That is a logic that leaves the Mothers for Peace distrustful of the NRC.

ROCHELLE BECKER, MOTHERS FOR PEACE: We have to speak up. And we have to speak up every single day.

BRANCACCIO: It's one reason Rochelle Becker believes the public has an especially important role in protecting the country from terrorism.

ROCHELLE BECKER, MOTHERS FOR PEACE: 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: We've posted more on all three of these stories over on our Web site at pbs.org.

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


BRANCACCIO: Connect to NOW online at pbs.org.

The gun industry and the courts

Living on minimum wage

More on nuclear plant safety

Connect to NOW at pbs.org.



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