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Report suggests flaws in San Onofre's security

Attacks put focus on vulnerability

By Bruce Lieberman STAFF WRITER

October 23, 2001

SAN ONOFRE -- One night last fall, a special forces team from the military, using unloaded weapons, staged a mock terrorist attack against the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

The mission: to simulate the sabotage of a set of targets critical to plant safety. If terrorists were to disable all of them, it could trigger a reactor meltdown.

Security guards also had a clear objective: to repel the attack and protect the plant.

Exactly what happened that night is classified. But an inspection report issued in July by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which conducts the exercises, hinted at weaknesses in plant security. "The issue was more than minor because the potential loss of a target set represents a credible impact on safety," the report said.

Officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had considered such exercises a routine part of a more-than-adequate security program. Some considered them unnecessary.

But much has changed in the nuclear power industry in recent weeks.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, San Onofre and other nuclear plants have stepped up security with perimeter patrols, vigorous ID checks and armed guards at gates.

After a threat last week against the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, military jets began patrolling above that plant. The federal government later declared the threat "noncredible."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it is conducting a top-to-bottom review of security. On Oct. 11, the agency shut down its Web site, which had provided the location of power plants, daily updates on plant operations and edited reports about counterterrorism exercises. As of yesterday, a few parts of the Web site had been restored.

Congress is studying whether to give the president authority to deploy National Guard troops at nuclear power plants and to establish no-fly zones over them. The governors of New York and New Jersey, choosing not to wait for Washington, have deployed National Guard units. In Massachusetts, troops were deployed yesterday at the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth.

Anti-nuclear groups have long argued that failures in counterterrorism exercises are alarming evidence that nuclear plants are vulnerable. Such critics -- some of whom want anti-aircraft weapons moved near plants -- say much more protection is needed now that the dynamics of terrorism have changed.

Under current rules, the federal government requires nuclear power plants to guard against an assault by "several" well-trained attackers who may have help from an insider. Attackers are envisioned with hand-held automatic weapons, "incapacitating agents and explosives," a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a "four-wheel-drive land vehicle bomb."

But commission regulations say nothing about more sophisticated groups, or attacks by air or sea. And they exempt utilities from having to protect plants against "attacks . . . by an enemy of the United States, whether a foreign government or person." One regulation allows a nuclear power plant to have as few as five armed guards.

"We must now protect against far larger groups acting in concert in several different teams, with high levels of sophistication, dedication and, unfortunately, a willingness to take vast numbers of casualties," said Daniel Hirsch, head of The Committee to Bridge the Gap, a nuclear watchdog group.

Since 1991, many nuclear power plants have failed to completely repel mock attacks. San Onofre's security force has been tested twice, in 1992 and Nov. 28 and 29 last year. The plant also conducts its own exercises four times a year.

Ray Golden, a spokesman for the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, disputed the commission's assessment of the November 2000 exercise. He cited another part of the July report that says the safety significance of the plant's security weaknesses was "very low."

Mock attack teams staged four assaults over two days, and security guards repelled three, Golden said. During the fourth drill, on the evening of Nov. 29, guards had successfully repelled assaults on several targets and the attackers were closing in on a final one when the exercise was terminated early. Golden would not say why.

"They weren't able to demonstrate their ability to reach the target, and we weren't able to demonstrate our ability to repel them," he said.

As recently as 1998, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had planned to scrap its counterterrorism program. At least 10 commission employees spoke out, however, saying the exercises were vital to security.

David Orrik, a security specialist with the commission, pointed out that 26 of 55 nuclear power plants tested between 1991 and 1998 "demonstrated significant protection weaknesses" during the drills -- despite receiving six months to a year of advance notice, specifics about what kind of threat to expect and a list of potential scenarios.

Facing critical media reports and pressure from within the agency, the commission restored the program in late 1998. This fall, the agency had planned to take the first steps toward replacing it with exercises created and run by the nuclear industry. Breck Henderson, a commission spokesman, said the agency is reconsidering that idea. In addition to re-examining the risk from attacks on the ground, federal officials are also studying the threat from the air.

For years, industry representatives had said nuclear power plants were designed to withstand the impact of a jetliner, even a 747. Spokesmen for utilities and the commission repeated that claim Sept. 11 and afterward.

But 10 days after the attacks, the commission acknowledged that the probability of a large commercial jet crashing into one of the nation's 103 commercial nuclear reactors was considered so low that it had never been studied.

That doesn't mean a nuclear power plant's most fortified structures, including its reactor containment domes, would be destroyed, Golden said. The twin domes at San Onofre are made of steel-reinforced concrete 3 to 7 feet thick, Golden said.

"We never envisioned commercial planes being terrorist weapons, (but) these, in my opinion, are some of the strongest, if not the strongest, structures in the country," he said.

But terrorists would not have to destroy a containment dome to threaten the nuclear reactor inside, experts say. San Onofre's twin reactors rely on several supplies of water, including water drawn from the ocean, to keep their cores from overheating, even after nuclear fission has been shut down. If terrorists managed to cut off primary and backup supplies of water, that could result in a reactor meltdown.

And reactors are not the only possible targets. Nuclear plants store highly radioactive assemblies of spent nuclear fuel in pools of water. San Onofre, which has operated since 1968, stores more than 1,600 tons of spent-fuel assemblies in three large pools housed in steel-reinforced concrete buildings.

In a June 2000 report, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission described the crash of an aircraft into a spent-fuel pool as an "unlikely event." But if such a crash occurred, the report said, the pools could be seriously damaged and spent-fuel assemblies could be exposed to the air. If that happened, the fuel assemblies most recently removed from a reactor could ignite.

"The resulting fire could carry radioactive particles off-site, and the consequences could be significant," the report said.

Officials with the nuclear power industry say last month's terrorist attacks are forcing them to rethink past assumptions about security.

Roger Hannah, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman, said, "Based on the events in mid-September, there is nothing we would not consider in regard to security."

-- Martin Thompson (, October 25, 2001


What they need are some of those "cammo dudes" that guard Area 51. They're Wackenhuts and have a right nasty demeanor.

-- Jim Davis (JD1642@aol.con), October 25, 2001.

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