Although U.S. intelligence agencies for years have been concerned that terrorists might target nuclear facilities for sabotage or theft, many facilities remain vulnerable. At a planning meeting in Spain in July 2001, 9/11 terrorist Mohammed Atta recommended “targeting a nuclear facility he had seen during familiarization flights near New York,” the 9/11 Commission report revealed. Most analysts believe this facility to be the Indian Point nuclear plant; a 1982 Sandia National Laboratories study found that a significant accident there could cause thousands of immediate fatalities. Atta’s idea was rejected, but “Al Qaida will continue to try to acquire and employ . . . nuclear material in attacks,” according to a 2007 unclassified National Intelligence Assessment on the terrorism threat to the United States. Over the past decade, security lapses have plagued both the nation’s nuclear weapons complex run by the Department of Energy (DOE) and several civilian nuclear reactors overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Government and private security tests have revealed serious vulnerabilities where uranium or plutonium, sometimes of weapons-grade quality, is stored. In 2007, a local CBS affiliate obtained footage of guards sleeping on the job at the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Efforts to consolidate nuclear materials in fewer, easier-to-defend sites have moved slowly.
The DOE and NRC have improved their security standards, although government auditors found in 2007 that protection levels still need improvement. Among the recommendations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO): the two agencies should cooperate on a common threat analysis and security testing; and the NRC should work to ensure that its licensees have the legal authority to use automatic weapons and deadly force as do DOE sites. The DOE is planning to consolidate nuclear materials, but debates continue regarding the extent and time frame. A DOE spokesman told the Center that consolidation is moving as fast as possible, while ensuring that security, environmental, and logistics concerns are addressed, noting that the deadline for removing nuclear materials from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been moved up two years to 2012. “This is the soonest we can do this safely and securely,” he said. In response to GAO criticism, NRC Chairman Dale Klein wrote to Congress and said that “DOE and the NRC do not agree with GAO that we should establish a common DBT [security standard] for facilities that store and process” nuclear materials. “The NRC believes that it is more important to set protection levels that are appropriate for potential scenarios and associated consequences that involve the malevolent use of nuclear materials stored or handled at a given site,” said Klein.