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Are civilian nuclear plants vulnerable to terror attacks?

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At a research facility some two dozen miles from the White House, government scientists operate a nuclear reactor burning uranium that could be used to build a nuclear weapon. A similar research reactor sits just blocks from where the suspected Boston Marathon bombers gunned down a campus policeman. A third reactor is located in the Midwest, less than a mile from a 71,000-seat college football stadium.

Yet more than a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, these facilities “are particularly vulnerable to sabotage attack” and are not required to meet tougher standards used by the military to protect its weapons-grade uranium from terrorists, say the authors of a new Pentagon-funded study.

The report by two University of Texas at Austin researchers, based mainly on public sources, found that three of the nation’s civilian nuclear research facilities and its 104 commercial reactors remain ill-prepared to guard against large-scale terrorism threats.

The three civilian research reactors — all fueled by uranium that could be used to build a nuclear bomb — are located at the University of Missouri in Columbia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

All three are supposed to convert to fuel that can’t be used in weapons, but that has not happened yet despite years of effort, and the facilities are expected to use the dangerous material for at least another decade, according to a statement supplementing the study.

The report raised issues that have long concerned nuclear security and nonproliferation experts. But it drew criticism from a number of nuclear industry and academic officials, including Christian Basi, spokesman at the University of Missouri.

Basi wrote in an email that the authors did not have access to confidential security plans and that safeguards at the Missouri plant go “above and beyond” what federal regulations require for such facilities. A spokesman for the National Institute of Standards and Technology also said its facility  meets or exceeds federal security requirements.

David Moncton, director of MIT’s Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, said MIT's device is small, keeps no inventory of fresh highly enriched uranium, and MIT is “committed” to converting to non-explosive fuel.

The report's co-author Alan Kuperman, coordinator of UT Austin's Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, said in an email responding to critics that the report's “claims are fully documented."

“It is always tempting for government agencies to say, 'Don't worry, everything's OK, but it's classified, so we can't prove it to you, but trust us,'" he said.

Kuperman said in a statement released with the Aug. 15 report that the consequences of the theft or sabotage from civilian nuclear facilities are so great that they need to be protected at the same higher standards used by the military for its nuclear weapons and bomb fuel.

“It would be a tragedy if the United States had to look back after such an attack on a nuclear reactor and say that we could have and should have done more to prevent the catastrophe," he said.

Power plants lack sufficient security, report finds

Kuperman and his co-author, graduate research assistant Lara Kirkham, noted that the U.S. raised safety standards for civilian nuclear facilities after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that the industry has spent $2 billion on increased security in the 12 years since.

But they say that research reactors and their weapons material need to be protected against terror attacks like military nuclear facilities — despite the cost — even if the government has to step in and provide that security itself. The authors did not estimate the cost of such a step.

Despite the experience of 9/11, civilian nuclear power plants are still not required to defend against airplane attacks, the report points out, leaving it to the military and other federal agencies to thwart them.

In 2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which regulates the use of nuclear material by civilians, rejected a petition from the Union of Concerned Scientists proposing a requirement that such plants be surrounded by a cage of steel beams and cables.

While the precise rules are secret, the report cited sources stating that nuclear plant operators are only required to deploy guns, gates and guards sufficient to deter “five or six well-armed terrorists” — a fraction of the 19 hijackers involved in 9/11.

If a larger-scale attack were launched against a nuclear power plant, operators would have to wait an estimated one-and-a-half to two hours for a SWAT team to respond and fully engage the attackers, according to a Project on Government Oversight estimate, which was cited in the report.

The government also does not require nuclear power plants to protect their facility from rocket-propelled grenades or .50 caliber rifles with armor piercing shells — weapons that the NRC initially proposed that the plants guard against, but that were removed from requirements amid pressure from the nuclear industry to keep costs down, according to reports cited in the study.

David McIntyre, spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the NRC has adequately “secured and bolstered security requirements” at nuclear facilities since Sept. 11. He said the report offered “no new insight, no new information.”

Charles Faddis, the former head of the CIA’s unit focused on terror groups seeking weapons of mass destruction, and author of “Willful Neglect,” a book about lapses in homeland security, said he could “not endorse” parts of the report, saying details of some of the topics raised should remain confidential. But he agreed that nuclear plants in this country “are not sufficiently secure,” citing what he called poor training and supervision of guard forces in particular.

“That does not mean there is no security,” he said. “That does not mean that anybody could seize one. It does mean that given the potential consequences if one of them is taken, there should be significantly more security. The sites are vulnerable.” 

In their report, Kirkham and Kuperman write that terrorists have long considered nuclear power plants as potential targets, citing reported threats or attempts to blow up or penetrate reactors in Argentina, Russia, Lithuania, Western Europe, South Africa, and South Korea.

Nuclear insecurity

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that civilian research centers are subject to even fewer security requirements than the nuclear power plants, such as having a trained, armed response force with semi-automatic weapons.

If facilities housing the research reactors cannot boost their security, he said, “there is a good case for shutting down research reactors in densely populated areas. It’s something the country has ignored for a long time.”

Since 9/11, he pointed out, seven nuclear research reactors using highly-enriched uranium have converted to a safer fuel. But the larger, higher-powered reactors have yet to make the transition.

The Department of Energy is developing a special kind of fuel for these reactors that can’t be used in weapons, but the effort has taken many years.

DOE spokesman Joshua McConaha said in a statement that DOE has had to revise the conversion program “in response to technical and scientific challenges.” One aim is to create fuel that will produce the kind of radiation sought by researchers currently using those reactors.

Once the fuel is developed and meets all requirements, the National Nuclear Security Administration and those facilities are committed to converting to the safer fuel “as soon as possible,” McConaha said.

McIntyre, with NRC, said civilian research reactors face less stringent security requirements because they don’t “present the same degree of risk or attractiveness to adversaries.”