GAO raises concerns on nuclear site safety

Congressional report finds industry unlikely to meet deadline for compliance

September 15, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Congressional investigators raised concerns yesterday about security lapses at U.S. commercial nuclear power sites, reporting episodes of guards being drunk on duty and possible rigged tests of plant defense systems.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot provide assurances that the nation's 65 nuclear power facilities can be defended against terrorist attack.

Rep. Christopher Shays, chairman of a Government Reform Committee panel, told Luis Reyes, the NRC's operations director, that the commission lacked "intensity" in dealing with potential terrorist attacks.

In April 2003, the NRC ordered nuclear plant operators to come up with plans to defend against specific kinds of hypothetical terrorist attacks and set a deadline next month for compliance. The GAO report concluded that the industry was unlikely to meet its Oct. 29 deadline.

The NRC has kept secret the various attack scenarios that the industry has been ordered to prepare to defend against for fear that terrorists could exploit such information to plan attacks.

Shays, a Connecticut Republican, complained at the hearing that the agency's package of hypothetical attacks "understates the true level of risk."

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, said the scenarios didn't include the case of a hijacked jetliner crashing into a nuclear plant, even though the Sept. 11 terrorists had once considered such an attack.

Jim Wells, the GAO official who directed the study, told the lawmakers that the NRC's scrutiny of the industry's security plans was only a "paper review" and that the agency had relied on the plant operators to provide information.

Reyes admitted that the NRC had visited only four of the 65 nuclear plant sites in the country. There are a total of 104 plants within those sites.

The GAO report recounted episodes of guards who were sleeping or drunk, as well as instances of guards falsifying surveillance documents in order to shirk duties.

Reyes responded to the accusations by pointing out that the GAO investigators did not actually visit the nuclear sites, either. The congressional agency's report was based on interviews with plant officials and reviews of their security plans.

The NRC also brought several pictures to prove that nuclear licensees were making their plants safer. One photo depicted a guard carrying a rifle in front of a pop-up vehicle barrier, while others showed bulletproof guard towers.

"I can't understand why I should be impressed with someone with a gun and a helmet on," Shays said.

Maloney said she was especially concerned that there are no restrictions on air traffic over nuclear sites.

Marvin Fertel, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's main trade association, told the panel that the industry was "on schedule" to meet the Oct. 29 deadline. NEI has maintained that it is "highly unlikely" that attackers could successfully breach security and "even more unlikely" that any attack would result in the release of radiation.

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