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Nuclear agency opposes federalizing security workers

The federal government should not take on security duties at the nation's nuclear plants, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC "strongly opposes" legislation introduced by several prominent Democratic senators that would give the agency operational responsibility for security at 103 nuclear sites around the country. Currently, NRC regulation places the private companies that operate nuclear power plants in charge of security. In late November, Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., introduced legislation (S. 1746) that would create a federal nuclear security force paid for by plant operators and general appropriations. Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. submitted a companion bill (H.R. 3382) in the House. The NRC estimates the bills would create more than 7,000 new federal security jobs at the agency, more than doubling its current size. Lawmakers contend that federalizing nuclear security personnel is the only way to shore up plant security in the post-Sept. 11 environment. But unlike the debate over federalizing airport security, pay and job turnover among current nuclear security employees are not the principal issues behind federalization. Instead, lawmakers point to an alleged long-standing unwillingness at the NRC to issue tough regulations for protecting nuclear plants. "The reality is that the NRC and the nuclear utilities industry have persistently ignored the vulnerabilities of our nation's nuclear facilities to a terrorist attack," said Markey at a press conference introducing his bill. "They have assumed that a terrorist attack simply can't happen here." In 1998, for example, the NRC tried to eliminate a program providing training exercises for security personnel that involved simulated terrorist attacks, according to Markey. The congressman has also questioned why the NRC did not petition President Bush to station National Guard personnel at all nuclear plants after Sept. 11, instead of leaving the decision to use the guard up to state governors. NRC Chairman Richard Meserve has ordered a top-to-bottom review of security at nuclear plants and has said that agency regulations will adapt to the new security climate. But Meserve has resisted legislation that imposes specific security measures on his agency, arguing the NRC needs time to finish its review and develop a nuclear security strategy that reflects the administration's evolving homeland security policy. In a Nov. 28 letter to Reid, Meserve criticized a provision in the Senate bill that creates a new unit to conduct security checks at nuclear sites. "The bill is extremely prescriptive concerning the organizational structure, type and number of employees, and other details," he wrote. "The commission has underway an evaluation of the means to assess licensee security capabilities and, at this juncture, believes that the approach to exercises…in the legislation is inappropriate and unworkable." Federalizing nuclear security personnel would be a costly, unwieldy solution to a "non-existent problem," Meserve added. The measure would transform the NRC from a regulatory agency to a front-line service agency that provides nuclear security, he said. But since the NRC would still be responsible for regulating security under the bill, the agency would have to scrutinize its own security plans, potentially creating a conflict of interest. "The NRC's role as an independent regulator … would be compromised by the bill's requirement that the NRC design security plans for all sensitive nuclear facilities, implement the plans with NRC employees, and then conduct safeguards evaluations of the efficacy of the implementation of those plans," said Meserve. Giving the NRC operational control for security would also detract from the agency's ability to regulate nuclear safety, according to Ralph Beedle, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an advocacy group sponsored by the commercial nuclear power industry. "By doubling or tripling its workforce with security forces, its current mission--the safe operation of our nuclear industry--would become a secondary mission of the NRC," Beedle told a Dec. 5 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Energy and Commerce Committee. These arguments failed to convince a House Democratic staffer, who said the NRC is too close to the industry it regulates to be an effective watchdog. "It's not that different from the Federal Aviation Administration," said the staffer. "In some ways, both agencies are fundamentally tied to the existence of the industry they oversee." The only way to correct this imbalance is through strict congressional oversight, the staffer concluded.