Senator introduces chemical, nuclear plant security bills

In an effort to improve security at U.S. nuclear power and chemical plants, U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., has introduced two alternatives to Democratic proposals.

Last week, Inhofe introduced the Chemical Facilities Security Act of 2003. Under the bill, the Homeland Security Department would have one year after the enactment of the bill to create regulations requiring chemical plant operators to conduct vulnerability assessments and to prepare site security plans.

To aid in the preparation of vulnerability assessments and security plans, the department would also provide chemical plant operators with relevant terrorist threat information. Chemical plant operators would be able to petition Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to endorse security standards developed by the chemical industry if they are "substantially equivalent" to the requirements of the act.

The bill would also give the Homeland Security Department the authority to review a plant's vulnerability assessment and security plan, and to order revisions if they are found to be inadequate. In addition, the department would also be required to conduct routine oversight of chemical plants to ensure compliance with the law, according to an Inhofe press statement. Chemical plants found to be in violation of the act could face civil penalties of up to $50,000 per day for each day a violation occurs, and administrative penalties of up to $250,000. In addition, Ridge could also petition for injunctive relief, which could result in the temporary closing of a facility, according to the Inhofe statement.

"Let me be very clear," Inhofe said in his statement. "No one gets a free pass under this bill, no one is exempt. Chemical facilities must abide by the legislation's security requirements and any rules, procedures or standards developed by the Department of Homeland Security," he said.

The American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade organization, praised Inhofe's chemical plant security bill.

"The legislation introduced today by Senator James Inhofe … is an important step to secure America's chemical facilities-part of our nation's critical infrastructure-against the threat of terrorist attack," the group said in a statement.

Nuclear Act Introduced

Complementing the chemical plant measure, Inhofe yesterday introduced the Nuclear Infrastructure Security Act of 2003, which seeks to improve security at nuclear power plants. The bill would require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in coordination with Ridge, to examine the security, preparedness and response plans for nuclear facilities. Such an examination would include an assessment of federal, state, local or plant operator responsibility to defend against various threats, as well as a review of hiring and training standards for nuclear plant security forces.

After such a commission review, it would have three months to revise the "design basis threat"-the type of terrorist attack a nuclear facility must be able to defend against. Nuclear facilities would then have a one-year deadline to revise their security plans based on the new design basis threat and submit them to the commission for review. The bill sets a 21-month deadline for the NRC to review the nuclear plants' emergency response plans.

In addition to facility security, Inhofe's bill also seeks to improve employee security. The bill calls for the commission to review employee access and training standards and to establish new security procedures-in addition to the current criminal background checks and fingerprinting-to ensure that no one who could pose a threat to national security is employed at nuclear facilities. In addition, nuclear facilities would be required to fingerprint anyone who has unescorted access to the facility or to a radioactive material storage site.

The bill also calls for the creation of a federal program to improve the training of National Guard units and state and local law enforcement agencies to respond to terrorist threats against nuclear facilities. In addition, the bill would also require the NRC to assign regional federal security coordinators who would be responsible for threat-information sharing and for ensuring that nuclear facilities in their region maintain the appropriate level of security for the known threat level.

Inhofe's bills are alternatives to legislation offered by several Democratic senators in the past year to improve chemical and nuclear plant security. Several Democratic senators last year sponsored the Nuclear Security Act, which sought to improve security at U.S. nuclear facilities. While the Senate environment committee unanimously supported the bill last year, the full Senate failed to act before the congressional session ended.

In March, during debate on the Price-Anderson Act-a nuclear industry liability and indemnification bill-Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered the Nuclear Security Act as an amendment. In a similar gesture, Inhofe offered his own amendment with language similar to that of the Nuclear Security Act, according to a Senate aide familiar with the issue.

Reid agreed to support the amendment in exchange for a markup hearing to be held on Inhofe's language, the aide said, noting that Inhofe's introduction of his nuclear plant security bill was mainly a procedural gesture to fulfill the markup pledge. Once Inhofe's bill moves out of committee, there will be an attempt to replace his amendment to the Price-Anderson Act with final language of the Nuclear Security Act, the aide told Global Security Newswire Tuesday. A Reid spokeswoman said that the senator was "pleased" that Inhofe's bill adopted most of the language in the Nuclear Security Act.

Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., also saw the Senate environment committee unanimously approve his chemical plant security bill last year, but the full Senate again failed to act before the congressional session ended.

After Inhofe released a draft of his chemical plant security bill late last month, Corzine responded with criticism.

"Unfortunately, the bill does very little to secure Americans who work and live around these facilities," Corzine said in a press statement. "The bill may provide an illusion of security, but it's little more than a fig leaf that would leave chemical plants highly vulnerable to terrorism," he said.

Corzine particularly criticized the provision in Inhofe's bill allowing chemical plant operators to petition Ridge to endorse industry-created standards.

"The government should set basic standards and hold industry accountable for meeting them," Corzine said. "We shouldn't just pass the buck to industry to set public safety standards," he added.

Corzine reintroduced his bill in January, but the committee does not plan to schedule hearings on it, committee majority spokesman Mike Catanzaro said today. "As far as the committee is concerned," it will now work to move both of Inhofe's bills to the Senate floor, he said. A markup hearing on both bills has been scheduled for Thursday.

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