Congressional Rejection of Nuclear Security Is Irresponsible

Sept. 12, 2002

Congressional Rejection of Nuclear Security Is Irresponsible

One Year After Sept. 11 Attacks, Energy Bill Conferees Opt Against Security Provisions in Price-Anderson Act

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senate and House members of the energy bill conference committee who today rejected amendments to improve security at nuclear power plants acted irresponsibly, Public Citizen said.

Conferees met to vote on the controversial Price-Anderson Act. The legislation, widely opposed by public interest and environmental organizations, extends insurance subsidies to the nuclear industry and caps the amount of monetary damages nuclear operators must pay in the event of an accident, leaving the government – i.e., taxpayers – to pick up the tab. Existing reactors are covered regardless of whether Price-Anderson is reauthorized; however, extending the act means that any new nuclear reactors will also get the liability protection.

The House last fall reauthorized the Price-Anderson Act as stand-alone legislation (H.R. 2983) that included certain security provisions drafted by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). The Senate never acted on the bill but agreed to include the Price-Anderson reauthorization as an amendment to the energy bill (H.R. 4), but without the security provisions. Both versions were on the table during today’s energy bill negotiations.

“Reauthorization of the Price-Anderson Act increases nuclear risks by encouraging the construction of new reactors,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “But having deciding to limit the nuclear industry’s liability, it is stunning that energy conferees refused to include even modest nuclear security provisions. This increases the potential liability of the taxpayer.”

U.S. Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and James Jeffords (I-Vt.) today introduced as an amendment the Nuclear Security Act, which was approved unanimously in July by the Environment and Public Works Committee. Among other provisions, the amendment would establish a task force to assess vulnerabilities at nuclear facilities and require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct “security response evaluations” every three years using a mock terrorist team to test the ability of security forces to guard nuclear facilities.

The Reid/Jeffords amendment was withdrawn due to opposition from a majority of the Senate conferees. Senate conferees had already rejected the House proposal to adopt security provisions contained in H.R. 2983 as “outside the scope of the conference.” House Republican conferees, blaming Senate conferee opposition and citing a misplaced desire to expedite Price-Anderson reauthorization, then voted down additional safety and security amendments introduced by Markey and Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

The Senate’s Homeland Security Act, moving toward a possible vote next week, similarly fails to address the issue of nuclear security.

“It is appalling that one year after the September 11 attacks, Congress has yet to enact legislation to address nuclear security,” said Lisa Gue, senior energy analyst with Public Citizen. “In light of the recent revelations about terrorists targeting these facilities in the future, now is the time to pass strong security provisions. What is Congress waiting for? And why is it using procedural excuses to avoid enacting nuclear facility and material security when President Bush is pushing to go to war over Iraq’s effort to gain access to nuclear materials?”

Following news reports earlier this week of terrorist plots against nuclear power plants, a coalition of national environmental and public interest organizations circulated a letter to energy conferees urging them not to reauthorize Price-Anderson and to consider issues of nuclear security. Click here to view the letter online.

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