Democrats seek to raise security at nuclear plants

Senate bill would set hiring, training standards

January 10, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Charging that the Bush administration has not done enough to protect U.S. nuclear power plants, several Democratic senators proposed legislation yesterday to bolster security at the reactors.

Their action came amid reports of a survey showing that a third of the employees at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) doubt their agency's commitment to safety.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in announcing the measure at a Capitol Hill news conference, said, "Last year, we did not do enough to improve security at our nuclear power plants, and it is a glaring weakness in our homeland defense."

The New York Democrat added, "We know that terrorists turned airplanes into missiles, and we don't want them to turn power plants into nuclear weapons."

The legislation would require the NRC, which is charged with ensuring the safety of the nation's 104 nuclear power plants in 31 states, to set hiring and training standards for security workers and to install a security coordinator at each plant.

It also would establish a task force headed by the NRC chairman to identify potential security lapses in the event of a terrorist attack. Nuclear plants provide about 11 percent of the nation's electricity.

Joining Clinton in sponsoring the measure was Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. Other co-sponsors were Democrats Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina and Tom Harkin of Iowa and independent James M. Jeffords of Vermont, who usually votes with the Democrats.

A similar measure was approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last year but never went to the Senate floor.

Reid said Senate Democrats have met resistance from the White House, which says the bill would cost too much. Reid's aides estimated the cost at $120 million.

"You think we enjoy standing here and broadcasting to the world that our nuclear facilities have inadequate security?" Reid asked rhetorically at the news conference.

Clinton referred to the survey commissioned by the NRC that also showed nearly half of its employees feel it is not safe "to speak up in the NRC."

The survey was conducted by an outside firm, International Survey Research, and was based on questionnaires completed last year by about half of the NRC's 3,000 employees.

Clinton said, "We must be prepared for today's threats that become tomorrow's attacks."

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