Terrorist act ripples change through nuclear industry

By Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor

The continued possibility of terrorism on the horizon has shaken the nuclear industry and its biggest regulator, but neither is giving in to doubt and rumors about the true safety and security of American nuclear power production. However, both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) admit that the events of Sept. 11 have fostered a number of new security actions by each.

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“The events of Sept. 11 have required us to reexamine what we had been doing in the past,” commented Richard Meserve, chairman of the NRC in an interview with EL&P.

“I think that it served as a wake-up call across the government, and I don’t think it’s likely we will ever go back to the pre-Sept. 11 levels of concern about terrorist activities in the U.S.-not just with nuclear energy, but with infrastructure of all kinds,” he added.

What has changed

“Since Sept. 11, we’ve been at a heightened level of awareness,” Doug Walters, senior project manager with NEI stated, adding that most of that is recommended by the NRC. He pointed out that many nuclear generators have added extra security personnel, expanded patrol perimeters and put up additional physical barriers to protect their reactors.

“We’re dealing with [the terrorist potential] as we think appropriate, based on the threat that’s out there,” he added.

“Sept. 11 was a terrorist attack of a type and magnitude that neither we, nor any other agency of government, had reason to anticipate beforehand,” Meserve observed, adding that the attack has moved the NRC to initiate a “top-to-bottom examination” of the agency’s structure and regulatory requirements for dealing with security issues.

“We have a substantial challenge in front of us as we revisit our requirements and see what we need to change,” he added, a process that NEI has stated they would be interested in participating in.

According to Walters, Sept. 11 also brought to light the question of what threats are licensees obligated to protect against and what threats are the responsibility of the federal government. Regulations make it clear that licensees are not responsible for protecting against enemies of the United States, according to NEI.

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“But where you draw that line has been the question,” Walters stated.

“The possibility of an airplane ramming into your reactor is not something that any plant can truly protect against,” added Mitch Singer, media relations manager with NEI. “To us, that’s a clear example of an ‘enemy of state’ threat.”

Meserve stated that being prepared for a design-basis threat-or a “commando raid,” as Meserve put it into layman’s terms-is required for nuclear facilities but agreed that definitions have been thrown off kilter since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We have always seen it as the licensee’s obligation to be able to demonstrate to the NRC that they can withstand that design threat,” Meserve said. “Before Sept. 11, the design-basis threat represented the ‘reasonable’ terrorist attack that might actually occur in the U.S.”

“So we have an issue now that’s obviously more apparent than before-one that weighs the responsibility of government to assist in dealing with attacks beyond the design basis,” he added. “That’s an issue that we’re grappling with now.”

Such grappling could cost the nuclear industry a good and tidy sum. With numbers near $100 million being batted around to contend with to-date costs for added security, Walters admitted that the continued cost will be “substantial” and even Meserve stated that, if the NRC cannot get a chunk of that money Congress set aside for security issues, licensees could be paying twice: to pump up their own defenses and to pay increased fees of the NRC for work in the security area.

Additionally, Meserve also sees nuclear waste as a new security issue, stating that the NRC now needs to consider whether a terrorist might focus an attack against a spent fuel pool or other storage facility, or even waste in transport.

“Even some types of low-level waste might be of interest for terrorist purposes-not necessarily because it would be very likely anyone would die from the radioactive properties, but simply for the terror affect of it being nuclear material,” Meserve stated.

“Certainly nuclear waste is an issue we have to consider as a result of Sept. 11,” he added.

NEI did not see nuclear waste as a potential security issue and commented that the storage facilities at most plants are nestled safely within the perimeter of extra security measures put in place since the attacks.

What hasn’t changed

Physical security of nuclear reactors is not a new issue for either the NEI or the NRC.

“We have requirements in our regulations that every nuclear plant has to have robust security-enough to be able to deal with a design basis threat,” Meserve stated. “That was already in place.” Meserve commented that those requirements were regularly inspected at all licensed facilities well before the actions of Sept. 11. However, he does believe that the expanse of those requirements may have to be adjusted.

“We were already working with the NRC, prior to Sept. 11, to make security more standardized from plant to plant,” NEI’s Walters told EL&P, agreeing with Chairman Meserve. “So, it’s not a new issue at all, but certainly Sept. 11 has created new challenges.”

Feeling secure about radiation containment is not one of those challenges, according to NEI. They find the possibility of a leak from an attack similar to the ones perpetrated upon the WTC or the Pentagon nearly impossible due to the layers of security already incorporated into the design (see cutaway).

Singer stated, “The odds are fantastic that a plane could breech the core. It would have to hit at a certain angle, forcing the rotor and blades to break through. Because of the robust nature of the containment itself, and the fact that the plant profile is much smaller than the Pentagon or the World Trade Center [see graphic], it would have to be an absolutely unbelievable shot for that plane to hit and cause any kind of damage at all.”

“The general feeling is that the [plant] designs are robust enough,” Walters added. “You’d have a hard time penetrating the vessel.”

Chairman Meserve, however, is not so sure.

“NEI has stated that, in their judgment, these facilities are not vulnerable to such a [Sept. 11 type] attack, but that is a matter that is subject to engineering analysis,” he said. “They may be right, but we need to know that for sure.” Meserve stated that the NRC does agree that reactors have very robust structures, but that they still need to look into the vulnerability to a Sept. 11 type attack, which they are in the process of doing.

However, both NEI and the NRC did contend that this new climate for nuclear energy will fundamentally change both the industry and its regulator.

“The fact is what you saw on Sept. 11 was an attack that no one thought would ever happen, and now it’s forcing everyone to take a harder look at what threats are out there and how to deal with them,” Walters concluded.

“The reality is that we’re going to have to deal with these security issues for the foreseeable future in a fashion that’s more aggressive than we had before Sept. 11,” Chairman Meserve observed.

Walters can be reached via phone (202-739-8093) or e-mail (djw@nei.org). Singer can be contacted via e-mail at mbs@nei.org.

Chairman Meserve can be contacted via Beth Hayden (eah@nrc.gov).

This is the second installment in EL&P’s secureicty series. The third, on IT security, is slated for Feburary.

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