Government Auditor’s Report Highlights NRC’s Failure to Effectively Regulate Nuclear Plant Security

Sept. 25, 2003

Government Auditor’s Report Highlights NRC’s Failure to Effectively Regulate Nuclear Plant Security

Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program

The General Accounting Office’s report about the continued inadequacy of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) oversight of security at nuclear power plants underscores how the agency has become captive to the industry it is supposed to regulate. The report, issued Wednesday, concludes unequivocally that the NRC isn’t doing everything it can to minimize the threats posed by and to our country’s 104 licensed nuclear power plants.

Current NRC security regulations rely heavily on self-assessment, leaving nuclear plant operators virtually unaccountable to the public. The effect is the equivalent of asking drivers to write themselves speeding tickets. Not surprisingly, the report found that “[n]one of the 104 plants’ self-assessments identified any security problems in 2001, 2002, or the first 6 months of 2003.”

The NRC also allows plant operators to forego reporting changes in their security plans if they don’t feel the changes decrease the effectiveness of the plan. Yet there are no objective criteria by which these changes can be assessed. Consider, for instance, the “security upgrade project” that removed all but one guard from an area, who then “falsified logs to show that he had checked vital area doors and barriers when he was actually in another part of the plant.” The project’s designation seems designed to avoid NRC reporting requirements.

The report is critical of the NRC’s “force-on-force” testing, whereby mock terrorist attacks are supposed to test a nuclear plant’s ability to deter saboteurs. The NRC is not currently required to conduct these tests, but the draft nuclear security legislation will require them to be conducted “periodically.” Throughout the 1990s, periodically meant, on average, once every eight years. However, since the September 11 attacks, the tests have been stopped altogether, ostensibly to be redesigned.

Finally, the report notes that NRC inspectors consistently failed to classify serious security lapses as such, thereby eliminating the need for a follow-up inspection. In one case, individuals set off a metal detector, yet guards failed to search them and even let them wander unescorted through the plant’s protected area. The NRC described this plant as “meeting security objectives.”

The NRC has been a tool of the nuclear industry for too long. Congress must immediately pass legislation to ensure that the NRC does its job of minimizing the inherent dangers of nuclear power.

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Click here to read the GAO report online.