Nuclear plants meet deadline for security improvements

The main trade organization for the U.S. nuclear industry announced Friday that all 103 U.S. nuclear power plants have implemented increased security measures in response to changes made by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as to the type of terrorist threat plants must be able to defend against.

There are concerns, though, regarding the commission's ability to review the new security plans in place at U.S. nuclear plants and regarding plans by the nuclear industry to use private contractors to conduct mock attacks to evaluate security efforts.

In April 2003, the NRC ordered that all U.S. nuclear plants have in place by Oct. 29, 2004 new security plans to reflect changes made by the commission to the Design Basis Threat - the size and type of a potential terrorist force nuclear plants must be able to defend against. While details of the new DBT are classified, NRC spokesman Dave McIntyre said Monday that the threat was revised to reflect the new security threat following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Over the past 18 months, U.S. nuclear plants have implemented a number of new security measures, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, such as increased guard forces and training, "substantial" physical improvements to defend against car bombs and the creation of a "rigorous" mock attack regime to evaluate security plans. Since 2001, the U.S. nuclear industry has spent more than $1 billion on efforts to improve security, the institute said in a press release.

"These security enhancements will continue to make nuclear power plants the most secure industrial facilities in America," NEI Chief Nuclear Office Marvin Fertel said in a statement.

In September, however, the Government Accountability Office raised concerns over the NRC's ability to adequately evaluate the new security plans in place at nuclear power plants.

In testimony before a House Government Reform subcommittee, senior GAO official Jim Wells described the commission's efforts to evaluate new plant security plans as largely a "paper review" that was not detailed enough to adequately determine whether the plans could defend against the new design basis threat. For example, Wells told lawmakers that GAO officials found that plant security plans were often based on a template and lacked site-specific information.

McIntyre dismissed GAO's criticisms of the commission's security review efforts, saying they were "way off the mark."

"It's a hand's on, day-in, day-out inspection process," he said.

Concerns also have been raised over the NRC's plans to rely on mock attack exercises to evaluate the new security plans, with the GAO saying in September that it will take three years for such exercises to be conducted at all plants.

NEI also came under fire this summer for its decision to hire the Wackenhut Corp. security company to train and manage two permanent adversarial teams that would be used in the mock attack exercises because the company also provides security personnel for about half of U.S. nuclear plants.

Both the NRC and NEI have defended plans to use Wackenhut personnel in the mock attack exercises, noting the experience the company has in providing nuclear plant security and the strict scrutiny to which the exercises will be subjected.

In its statement Friday, NEI called for increased focus to be placed on efforts to integrate police and emergency responders with nuclear plant security forces. To help such efforts, a Nuclear Sector Government Coordinating Council, consisting of industry and government officials, has been created and held its first meeting earlier this month, NEI said.

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