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“Secrecy on security at nuclear plants continues to be scrutinized” by Rita J. King

The same way the food chain creates an impetus for evolution, terrorism and security each force the other entity to get stronger and smarter in order to succeed. In this interplay of offense and defense, the nuclear industry has found itself at the center of a debate about how much security is really enough.

After 9/11, security upgrades and mandates from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have manifested in enhanced barrier fortifications, better training for guards, razor wire and cement blocks protecting the nation’s 103 nuclear power plants.

But the most notable change is the regulatory agency’s announcement on August 4 that security issues at nuclear plants will now be veiled in secrecy, effectively eliminating public scrutiny and the ability of watchdog groups to raise awareness about issues affecting the industry as a whole or even at specific facilities, such as the Indian Point nuclear power plants in Buchanan.

NRC chairman Nils Diaz said the regulatory agency “deliberated for months on finding the balance between the NRC’s commitment to openness and the concern that sensitive information might be misused by those who wish us harm.”

When asked if the NRC’s policy change might be an indication that terrorism will similarly be taken into account to revise the emergency evacuation plans, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said a fast-breaking plume of radiation was “impossible.”

Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group with eyes and ears on the Hudson River, has been spearheading the fight to shut down Indian Point.

“The new policy is nothing more than a way to shield plant owners from embarrassing security blunders becoming public,” said Riverkeeper Executive Director Alex Matthiessen. “The new and ill-advised policy will have a negative impact on security at Indian Point. Absent an explanation of what substantial security improvements have been made, one can only assume that little has been done…The NRC is fooling no one, certainly not the people of New York, and certainly not the terrorists determined to strike again.”

Indian Point spokesman Jim Steets said he understands the necessity for having secret “safeguards” information to avoid “helping terrorists,” but he’s also frustrated because he’s convinced if people had more information “nobody would see Indian Point as a potential terrorist target.”

“It’s often difficult for folks who don’t have a background in engineering to understand how the forces of nature work,” Steets remarked.

For example, Steets explained the “containment structures around the reactors are so strong that nothing reasonable could penetrate them.”

What is “reasonable” these days?

“Okay, nothing imaginable could penetrate,” he said. “People say a nuclear bomb could blow them up, but a nuclear bomb would do just fine on its own, so why put it at Indian Point?”

With President George W. Bush having announced blueprints for nuclear plants had been found in the caves of Afghanistan, and the 9/11 Commission’s executive report explicitly stating terrorists had been planning to strike a nuclear plant on 9/11 but planes were grounded before the day’s full roster of events could be completed, terrorism is the most substantial security concern facing the nuclear industry.

The NRC has never required nuclear plants, as private industries, to protect themselves against “acts of war” or “enemies of the United States.” On 9/11, suicide bombers used the Hudson River as a navigational tool and flew above Indian Point on their way into Manhattan.

In the wake of that devastation, scrutiny on security intensified. Are measures to bolster security strong enough to keep those living around nuclear plants safe from an attack?

The Lonesome Whistleblower

When Ralph Nader made a Halloween appearance days before the presidential election in Peekskill, a scant crowd was present. The candidate stood with his back to Indian Point, visible in the distance behind him, with rolling hills along the Hudson River glowing golden in the molten autumn sun. Neither President Bush, nor his Democratic rival, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, showed up in that spot, Nader noted, to criticize the operation of Indian Point, considered by some, Nader included, to be one of the most “attractive terrorist targets in America.”

“Protecting the health and safety of the public should come before protecting the profits of major nuclear power donors to the Bush Administration,” Nader said. “The administration should require all nuclear plants to take authentic, measurable steps to protect themselves from terrorists…as to reduce the risk of a radioactive release.”

Such criticisms are often dismissed as “scare tactics” by Steets, who has become a popular mouthpiece for the industry. He was even the subject of a feature in the New York Times in September, 2004, “The Public, and Cheerful, face of Nuclear Energy.”

A couple of months ago, the possibility of a strike among security guards over contract negotiations didn’t ruffle Steets.

“If they strike, we can replace them with trained security officers from anywhere,” he said at the time, adding new workers are given a thorough and intensive training period prior to taking on posts within the plant. The training includes background checks and psychological tests, he said.

“People think security guards just kind of stand around and shoot back if somebody starts shooting at them,” he said. “That’s not the case.”

Each guard, he said, covers a specific area and has a specific duty. He doesn’t believe it would make any difference at all if the federal government took over security at the plant, because the “requirements for security would still be the same.”

NRC’s Sheehan said interim guards can be trusted with important information about plant security because “if they want to remain employed in this field, they need to remain trustworthy.”

One guard who stepped beyond the hush of business as usual is Foster Zeh, a former Indian Point security officer. On December 9, 2002, Zeh was interviewed on “Good Morning America!” by Diane Sawyer of ABC News. He appeared with the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), Danielle Brian.

Zeh said during security drills, one of the most vulnerable and arguably the most dangerous area of the plants, the spent nuclear storage building, was infiltrated easily, within seconds.

“These drills are, are basically designed for…the security officers to, to enhance the security, obviously,” Zeh told Diane Sawyer. “But when we went to our supervisors with it, we were basically told to shut up.”

He went on to describe guards fearful of an attack due to understaffing, poor training, and fitness levels so inadequate that repelling an attack might be physically impossible.

POGO’s Brian said her agency interviewed 140 guards across the country and found overwhelmingly similar feelings from three quarters of those interviewed.

“It’s a bottom line issue,” Brian said. “It’s money. The minimum requirement is that you have a pistol permit. That doesn’t, necessitate that you’re going to do well against an armed attack. And it’s ridiculous that these companies actually believe, and our elected officials believe, that this is enough to protect a nuclear power plant. It really isn’t.”

Zeh went on to say guards are “physically and morally defeated” because no matter how many times security was breached during drills, the facility garnered high marks.

Officials from Indian Point’s parent company, Entergy, declined to appear in the segment but sent a statement acknowledging they were in compliance with NRC regulations.

“One of the points in their statement is that the NRC said…they’ve passed their standards, and what’s frightening is, it’s true,” Brian said. “The government standards, frankly, are so pathetic that the companies are able to say, ‘look, we’ve passed everything we have to pass.’ And so, from our perspective, until the government raises the bar and really demands serious security, that’s what we’re going to get.”

In addition to his media appearance, Zeh wrote a letter to the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations in December 2002, in which he detailed an avalanche of security concerns, such as drills being deliberately rigged to ensure success, skittish guards unsure of the capability to repel an attack, overtime, high fatigue and a lack of faith in management.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission

NRC is the ultimate authority when it comes to creating the security standards that guide the nuclear power industry. Two months after 9/11, NRC Chairman Dr. Richard Meserve admitted the NRC had been caught off guard by the scope and force of that day.

“President Bush described the September 11 attacks as an act of war,” Meserve said before the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations during a November 8, 2001 speech. “Plainly, those vicious attacks far exceeded anything that the NRC had contemplated as a threat to our licensees. Nor had we seriously considered the possibility that a terrorist threat might affect all U.S. nuclear facilities simultaneously.”

“In principle, of course, it is the responsibility of the Federal Government to protect the nation against threats from abroad,” Meserve said, “but the reality of the present crisis is that all of us, organizations and individuals, public and private, have a responsibility as citizens to do our part to protect the American people.”

But if NRC hadn’t even considered the possibility of such an attack, or worse, what has been done since to prepare?

Sheehan said nuclear plants were already “robustly” protected before 9/11, and the government was responsible for protecting the American people against acts of war and enemies of the United States while licensees are not.

“Nuclear plants have always had a high level of security,” Sheehan said, adding the industry has spent millions on heightened mandates after September 11. The deadline for enforcing those new rules just passed, on October 29.

Better guard training is one of the new measures, along with physical improvements at facilities such as greater standoff distances for vehicles, additional checkpoints and more security guards, Sheehan said.

To test security, NRC holds “force-on-force drills,” during which mock marauders armed with fake weapons engage in imaginary battle with guards, some of whom have been hired and trained expressly to meet the demands of the drill, announced months in advance to give facilities a chance beef up on muscle and know-how.

After 9/11, NRC took a hiatus to assess a new Design Basis Threat (DBT) in the face of previously unimagined possibilities. The DBT is designed, according to NRC, based on the type, composition and abilities of an adversary.

In April 2003, the new DBT was approved for use in a June drill that took place at Indian Point. Previously, some facts and figures surrounding force-on-force drills had been made public, but the new DBT is being kept secret. In fact, NRC announced in August all security information about the nuclear industry, even information previously announced routinely such as guards asleep at their posts, will henceforth be shielded from the public, ostensibly to avoid helping terrorists.

Riverkeeper pounced on the announcement, believing the purpose was to shield nuclear plants from “embarrassing gaffes and public relations nightmares.”

“Given the increased terrorist threat level, Indian Point’s poor record on security, and the NRC’s weak oversight, now is the time for greater scrutiny, not less,” said Riverkeeper’s former Senior Policy Analyst Kyle Rabin. “The NRC should consider an alternative policy that will allow nuclear watchdogs and public interest groups to participate in the development of security regulations and provide oversight in a manner that enhances plant security.”

Riverkeeper doesn’t trust that the new DBT will meet the standard set by guerrilla warfare or terrorist tactics, especially those involving the possibility of suicide bombers.

“For about 25 years, NRC has required reactor operators to design their security plans to protect only against a land-based terrorist event by no more than three external attackers operating as a single team and using weapons no more sophisticated than hand-carried automatic rifles,” Rabin noted. “However, on September 11, 2001, more than six times that number of attackers, operating as four separate teams, using airplanes as weapons, launched a terrorist attack in the United States that took thousands of lives. A successful terrorist attack on a reactor or spent fuel pool could result in tens of thousands of casualties from prompt deaths and delayed cancers.”

On September 14, 2004, Director of Natural Resources and the Environment for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) Jim Wells testified before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives. His testimony was entitled, “Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Preliminary Observations on Efforts to Improve Security at Nuclear Power Plants.”

“Today, three years after the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks, we are discussing what NRC has done, where they are, and what’s left to do,” Wells began.

To NRC’s credit, he said, the agency “responded immediately” after 9/11 with heightened security measures and a new DBT. The GAO had recommended a “more realistic,” and frequent drill, held every three years instead of eight, and Wells noted those suggestions had been implemented.

“While we applaud these efforts, it will take several more years for NRC to make an independent determination that each plant has taken reasonable and appropriate steps to provide protection,” Wells said, adding the GAO has concerns about the process.

The first problem, according to Wells, is the NRC isn’t visiting the plants much, but rather relying on a “paper review” to move security along.

“As a result, NRC will not have detailed knowledge about security at individual facilities prior to approval,” Wells explained.

Wells also questioned the manner in which the NRC was looking to measure security.

“NRC is considering action that could potentially compromise the integrity of the exercises. The agency is planning to require the use of an adversary force trained in terrorist tactics,” Wells said. “However, NRC is considering the use of a force provided by a company that the nuclear power industry selected; a company that has had problems in the past, and a company that provides guards for about half the facilities to be tested. This relationship with the industry raises questions about the force’s independence.”

He was referring, in all likelihood, to Wackenhut, the United States-based division of the leading global provider of security-related services. Wackenhut was once in charge of security at Indian Point. In March 2003, Entergy assumed that responsibility internally.

Eye on Wackenhut, a website hosted by the Service Employees International Union, has made a mission out of watching the security company. Eye on Wackenhut has identified a variety of security related complaints, such as long hours for guards, inadequate training and the apparent contradiction of security at some plants being managed by the same company that, in some cases, later tests the adequacy of the security.

Eye on Wackenhut and nearly 500 others voiced such concerns to NRC chairman Diaz, who responded in a statement posted online in early 2004. After reviewing the issues, mostly about Indian Point nuclear plants, Diaz began his report by noting security was adequate.

Steets said security efforts were coordinated between various intelligence agencies, NRC, officials from the Department of Defense, law enforcement agencies, engineers and military intelligence.

“We had a secure facility before 9/11,” Steets said. “We had barrier fences, cameras, metal detectors, x-ray machines and other layers of protection, and they have all doubled since 9/11. Indian Point meets all the requirements of the NRC. NRC employees get up every morning knowing what their jobs and responsibilities are.”

Entergy has spent $30 million implementing more security since 9/11, he said, and has met the new DBT established by the NRC.

“The drill was more intensive this time,” Steets said, although he refused to verify if the exercise addressed the possibility of more sophisticated sabotage or more attackers than before. He also wouldn’t say if mock truck bombs were included in the drill.

Entry for some might be effectively barred by barbed wire and cement blocks, but did the drill begin with violent, possibly suicidal, bombers paving the way for more saboteurs?

“NRC did say Indian Point security repelled the attacks and performed well,” he noted.

“It’s important to recognize that after 9/11, we all realize we have a lot of borders and facilities that require protection. Security means a lot of different things,” Steets said.

He said increased measures at airports, for example, benefit the nuclear industry because the additional security provides another level of protection against sabotage from the sky. He drew a clear line between the plant’s responsibility to protect itself by meeting NRC mandates, and the government’s responsibility to protect Americans from acts of war or enemies of the United States.

“We can’t prevent a plane from crashing into a dome,” Steets said. “That’s the government’s responsibility.”

Despite no-fly zones over the Super Bowl and Disney parks, flights aren’t banned from crossing the sky above Indian Point. For a brief period after 9/11, airspace was restricted and additional security measures were taken and quickly dropped.

“They don’t think it’s necessary to place restrictions on commercial flights,” Steets said.

In October 2001, the intelligence community caught wind of a “credible threat” against Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, already the site of the worst nuclear accident in American history in 1979, after which President Jimmy Carter mandated emergency evacuation plans for communities living near all the nation’s power plants.

Sheehan wouldn’t specify the nature of the threat against Three Mile Island, but he said the response to it was an example of how the facility and government worked together to protect the plant and residents. The airspace above the plant was restricted and guarded by the military while security within the facility was on high alert.

A helicopter was once spotted hovering too long in the air above the Seabrook Plant in New Hampshire, Sheehan said, and was escorted out by fighter jets.

While filming Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable for HBO, Rory Kennedy and her brother, attorney and environmental activist Robert “Bobby” F. Kennedy, Jr., hovered in the airspace near Indian Point while discussing a perceived lack of security.

“Can you imagine a world without New York City?” said Bobby Kennedy. “The terrorists already have.”

The Great Escape

Last year, Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano staged a revolution against the emergency evacuation plans when he refused to verify the county was prepared for a radiological emergency, despite having completed all the necessary drills and preparatory mandates. In a show of solidarity, his colleagues from Putnam, Rockland and Orange Counties also refused to ink their signatures.

Year after year, after the county executives verify preparedness, as they have in the past, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reviews the results of the preparedness drill, also called a “mock evacuation,” before recommending the NRC ultimately approve the plans. FEMA is responsible for organizing the off-site response to a radiological emergency, while NRC coordinates on-site.

The protest of the county executives created a fierce finger-pointing battle, during which the state asked the counties for more information and the federal government asked the state for more information before FEMA approved the plans despite the din and passed them up to the NRC for ultimate approval.

In the meantime, local school districts such as Lakeland, protested the hassle of trying to decipher complicated consequences of proximity to Indian Point, such as planning their own evacuation strategy, assuring parents children will have transportation, food, shelter, safety and access to potassium iodide pills to protect their thyroids in case of exposure to radiation.

Westchester County has repeatedly voiced similar complaints about unprepared first responders and the funding of emergency measures to the tune of nearly five million annually while Entergy, Indian Point’s parent company, is required to shore up around half a million.

Congresswoman Sue Kelly was instrumental in calling for Congressional hearings on Indian Point, held in February 2003, before FEMA approved the plans.

“This isn’t a game,” Kelly said at the hearings. “This is about the safety of 20 million residents in the New York metropolitan area.”

She went on to slam FEMA’s response to the public and legislative outcry.

“I say with no uncertainty that I am appalled by the conduct of FEMA as it relates to Indian Point,” Kelly said. “The agency’s inaction and bureaucratic finger-pointing has been a disservice to our community. Instead of providing expert guidance to local officials, FEMA has engaged in a senseless agenda of intimidation and dangerous bullying.”

Many lost faith in the regulatory agencies after the fray, and public and legislative scrutiny intensified. Currently, more than 400 elected officials, legislators, senators, trustees and councilperson from the tri-state area have signed a petition demanding closure of Indian Point.

“Currently the biggest risk to Indian Point and the rest of the U.S. commercial nuclear power plant fleet is the refusal of the NRC, DHS, FEMA, the federal government, and the nuclear industry to acknowledge that in this post-9/11 world, we need to secure and limit any and all of the country’s greatest potential terrorist targets,” said Riverkeeper outreach coordinator Lisa Rainwater van Suntum, PhD.  “Nuclear power plants, as even President Bush discussed in his 2002 State of the Union Address, have been and continue to be high on the list of possible terrorist targets.  Until these entities take direct action to secure nuclear power plants, and in particular shut down Indian Point, which poses the greatest threat to the greatest number of people, the region and country are at risk.”

Rainwater van Suntum feels the government has “refused to accept science, act on intelligence reports, and provide ample funding to local, regional, and statewide agencies.”

Many have voiced concern about spent nuclear fuel being stored in pools of water.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is one of many experts who have fired warning flares about the vulnerability of the fuel and the catastrophe that could result should a nuclear fire begin.

The testimony of experts on Indian Point’s payroll often contradicts the findings of Lochbaum and others, like Gordon Thompson, a world-renowned expert who advises plants to “harden and disperse” spent nuclear fuel in fortified casks to prevent a cataclysmic attack or accident.

“For every PhD, there’s an equal and opposite PhD,” Westchester County Executive Spano likes to say.

Even Entergy’s own research, including a report from January 25, 2002, questions the success guards might have when faced with real danger. According to Entergy’s own report, only 19 percent of guards interviewed at the planet felt they could successfully repel an attack.

To make matters even more ambiguous with regard to the necessity for a strong security force, NRC Commissioner Edward McGaffigan said in Kennedy’s documentary terrorists don’t have the capability to train near the plants and succeed with an attack.

Other experts have given equally passionate testimony to the contrary, insisting the eastern seaboard could be rendered

uninhabitable for tens of thousands of years and the world’s economy could be crushed if a successful attack on one of Indian Point’s spent fuel rod pools resulted in a nuclear fire.

It seemed like only one person, James Lee Witt, might have the knowledge and skills to set the record straight on the adequacy of the emergency evacuation plans, so his counsel was sought.

New Perspectives on Security

In 2002, New York Governor George Pataki hired James Lee Witt & Associates to conduct an independent study of the emergency evacuation plans, a requirement mandated by President Jimmy Carter after the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. As Director of FEMA, Witt approved emergency evacuation plans for Indian Point, around which eight percent of the nation’s population lives in a 50-mile radius.

This time around, Witt, the nation’s top expert in emergency planning, found the plans to be “inadequate” in January 2003. Just as FEMA had disregarded the protest of the county executives, they now chose to downplay Witt’s expertise, and his warning that in light of 9/11, the emergency plans should take a fast-breaking release into account. This was merely one of a litany of flaws Witt found in the plans.

The report, nearly 500 pages long, seemed like it would provide a new path for emergency planners responsible for ensuring the safety of those living around nuclear plants, and especially Indian Point.

“Simply stated,” Witt wrote in the executive summary of his report, “the world has recently changed. What was once considered sufficient may now be in need of further revision.”

Among Witt’s observations was a perceived contradiction in the reality of human nature and the expectation that people will obey instructions from authority figures.

“The plans appear based on the premise that people will comply with official government directions rather than acting in accordance with what they perceive to be their own best interests,” Witt wrote.

The plans haven’t been updated, he said, to reflect the possibility of terrorism.

Steets reacted by saying the evacuation plans are “Adequate even in light of possible terrorism. The basic time frame for a release getting bad enough to cause serious harm is the same. The rapid-release scenario doesn’t exist.”

Witt said he hoped the report would accelerate both “regulatory and cultural changes.”

Two months later, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) became official.

Matthew Brzezinski wrote an article for Mother Jones describing his experience of researching and visiting the DHS.

“It was billed as America’s frontline against terrorism,” he wrote. “But badly underfunded, crippled by special interests and ignored by the White House, the Department of Homeland Security has been relegated to bureaucratic obscurity.”

Brzezinski was one of the first journalists to “get an inside look at what was billed as the most ambitious government overhaul since the creation of the Pentagon in 1947.”

March 1, 2003 was the official start date for the DHS, composed of 22 government agencies. According to Brzezinski, the $27 million DHS budget is used to screen 1.5 million airline passengers, inspecting 57,000 trucks and shipping containers, as well as making arrests and seizures, reviewing intelligence reports, training federal officers and issuing information.

Brzezinski expected a “colossus,” he said, but instead found “wholly inadequate quarters.” He was there to meet with assistant secretary from the Infrastructure Protection Directorate Bob Liscouski, whose mission it is to “make sure Al Qaeda doesn’t blow up a power plant, bridge, nuclear or chemical facility somewhere in the United States.”

After Liscouski drew a matrix to “explain the role of vulnerability assessments being conducted to establish…terrorist attacks to America’s economic backbone,” Brzezinski asked him what he was doing about it.

“We don’t do the doing,” Liscouski said. “We do the coordinating. Our role is to look at the big picture of what is really threatened and determine how to protect it.”

FEMA, responsible for the off-site response to a radiological emergency at the nation’s 103 nuclear power plants, was brought under the DHS’s umbrella of protection. NRC remains an independent agency.

“NRC has a very good relationship with DHS,” Sheehan said. “We have a lot of interagency committees and councils.”

When asked how the umbrella of protection offered by DHS has changed life at Indian Point, Steets said the NRC “has an important relationship with DHS and we’re part of the mix.”

DHS Director Tom Ridge may or may not have visited Indian Point, Steets said, but “other staffers have.”

Local legislators such as Congressman Eliot Engel have written letters to Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, urging him to take a closer look at Indian Point.

In March of 2003, Engel wrote: Security at and around nuclear power plants is no longer just a concern of the NRC. With real terrorist threats looming over nuclear power plants, the Department of Homeland Security should be actively engaged in securing our nuclear power plants and the spent fuel rods located there. The threats are real, and we need to ensure that those people living near the plants receive the best protection our country can provide.”

Engel concluded with a wish to work with Ridge on the Indian Point issue, and he was not alone in his request. But Ridge has reportedly remained unresponsive. When attempts to contact the DHS were made for this article, the first call was patched through to a live conversation and both parties hung up when they realized a third party had been privy to a fragment of the conversation. Two subsequent calls were not returned in time.

On the DHS website, under the “contact us,” subhead, the only information provided is for the agency’s postal address.

“Ridge has refused repeated requests by state political leaders, including Westchester County Executive Andy Spano and the New York City Council, to meet to discuss safety concerns. Ridge hasn’t even responded to their letters,” wrote Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in an editorial published in Newsday on October 28, 2004.

When GAO’s Wells testified before the House of Representatives, he made it clear that while changes have been made in security, the industry and the agency responsible for guiding it still have a journey ahead of them.

“In conclusion,” Wells said, “can the public be assured that NRC’s efforts will protect the plants against attacks?  Our answer is not yet.  It will be some time before NRC can provide the public with full assurances that what has been done is enough. Some of these enhancements are still being put in place, and they remain to be tested…We believe based on what we have seen to date, that it is important for NRC to act quickly and take a strong leadership role in establishing a worthy adversary team for these exercises, establish priorities for the facilities to be tested, carefully analyze the test results for shortcomings in facility security, and be willing to require additional security improvements as warranted.”

The Design Basis Threat, in other words, needs to be cautiously engineered to keep the industry’s security equal to any threat they may face, especially considering utilities aren’t required to protect themselves against acts of war or enemies of the United States.“

This article originally appeared in North County News

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