Report faults security at N-plants

Manpower shortages, poor training, fatigue heighten vulnerability

March 17, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Security forces at the nation's nuclear facilities are being weakened by deteriorating training programs, manpower shortages, long hours and fatigue, raising doubts about their ability to respond to terrorist attacks, according to investigations by federal inspectors and a public watchdog group.

Ten nuclear weapons facilities have curtailed or eliminated key elements of a training curriculum designed in part to fend off terrorist attackers, the Energy Department's inspector general reported yesterday.

One site dropped 40 percent of the required 320 hours of basic police training, the report said.

"Inconsistent training methods may increase the risk that the department's protective forces will not be able to safely respond to security incidents or will use excessive levels of force," said the audit by Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman.

Other recent inquiries have questioned the level of security ringing the nation's 65 nuclear power plants, which are considered a priority target for terrorist attack.

The Washington-based Project On Government Oversight, (POGO), which scrutinizes a wide range of federal programs, alleged last week that security standards for nuclear power plants are "not even close" to being prepared for a potential terrorist threat.

Most plants would have to quadruple their security to adequately confront terrorist attackers, said POGO's director, Danielle Brian. The number of security forces at one unidentified plant, she said, drops by as much as 25 percent on weekends and holidays, in violation of a plant security plan ordered after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

POGO investigator Peter Stockton said manpower shortages at nuclear facilities have often forced guards to log more than 60 hours of overtime a week, resulting in "a horrendous fatigue factor."

"If these guys were attacked," he said, "they wouldn't know which end is up."

Two senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said this month that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is weakening regulations designed to ensure that a nuclear reactor can be safely and automatically shut down in the event of a fire caused by a terrorist attack or accident.

"Now is not the time to weaken fire safety at nuclear reactors," Reps. John Dingell of Michigan and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, said in a March 3 letter to NRC Chairman Nils J. Diaz. "As you know, Al-Qaeda continues to place nuclear reactors at the top of its terrorist target list."

Only one site conducted basic training on the use of a shotgun, Friedman said. Seven sites modified or reduced the intensity of training "for skills that some security experts characterized as critical," including handcuffing, hand-to-hand combat and vehicle assaults.

The report did not elaborate on procedures at each site. Some of the facilities, the report said, used "unrealistic training methods" that fell short of introducing guards to real-life situations they might confront in a terrorist attack.

Vehicle assault training, for instance, used wooden mockups or vehicles with the glass removed, apparently to avoid injuries.

Moreover, the report said, none of the sites conducted training in rappelling, even though it is part of the required curriculum for special-response teams. Several sites excluded training with shotguns and batons because they didn't have the equipment.

Friedman said "anything less" than realistic training "may rob the trainee of the exposure to the levels of force, panic and confusion that are usually present during an actual attack and increase the possibility of an inappropriate response."

The findings could give Democrats ammunition to bolster their election-year assertions that the Bush administration has failed to adequately safeguard the nation against another terrorist attack.

Markey said the review shows that security at the nation's nuclear complex is "woefully inadequate" and ill-prepared to defend against terrorists "who are highly-trained, well-armed and suicidal."

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