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Public Citizen Urges Nuclear Industry, NRC to Support Safety

Dec. 6, 2001

Public Citizen Urges Nuclear Industry, NRC to Support Safety

Industry, Agency Opposition to Enhanced Security Measures Puts Corporate Wishes Before Public Interest

WASHINGTON, D.C. ?The nuclear power industry and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are putting corporate interests before public safety by opposing legislation that would enhance security measures at nuclear power plants, Public Citizen warned today.

“For the NRC and the industry to oppose this bill reflects a breathtaking disregard for the health and safety of people living near nuclear power plants,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “People want assurances that they are safe from a terrorist-triggered radiological nightmare. The industry and the NRC are meeting those concerns with cold contempt.”

The need for sweeping security upgrades at the nation?s nuclear facilities had been well-documented prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and alarm about security problems at the plants has heightened since Sept. 11. Public officials and their constituents living near nuclear facilities are now questioning the adequacy of security precautions and in some instances demanding that plants immediately be shut down.

Legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and James Jeffords (I-Vt.), along with Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), attempts to address some of those security concerns. The measure would federalize security forces at the plants and drastically expand the number and types of threats that security forces must envision when they determine if and how the plants can be defended against assaults. Other provisions of the bill would seek to protect the public by establishing stockpiles of potassium iodide ?recently dubbed the Cipro of radiation ? near nuclear plants and expand a plant?s emergency response and evacuation zone from a 10- to a 50-mile radius.

Plant operators would be charged fees to pay for the nuclear security force and other provisions of the legislation. Reid has estimated the cost to the industry could be as high as $1 billion. Public Citizen cautioned, however, that the bill’s language may have to be improved to assure that taxpayers are not asked yet again to subsidize the cost of nuclear power, this time by paying for adequate security at nuclear power plants.

Shortly after the bill was introduced, NRC Chairman Richard Meserve and Joseph Colvin, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry?s lobbying organization, blasted the legislation. In a prepared statement, Colvin dismissed the issue of nuclear power plant security as “a problem that does not exist.” In a letter to Reid, Meserve parroted the views of the industry he is charged with regulating and asserted that the bill “addresses a non-existent problem.”

In fact, very real security problems have been identified at the nation?s nuclear power plants. From 1991 through 1998, the NRC conducted a series of “force-on-force” tests, in which mock assailants “attacked” nuclear power plants. In nearly half the tests, it was found that a real attack would have jeopardized the reactor and potentially resulted in core damage and the release of radiation to the environment.

Even before Sept. 11, watchdog groups and concerned citizens were warning that the scope of threats envisioned by plant operators and the NRC was ridiculously narrow. For instance, current safeguards don?t adequately account for attacks from air, water or large truck bombs (the latter is a particularly egregious deficiency after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City). Current defense planning also assumes that attackers would arrive in small numbers, possess little or no technical expertise, and would not be suicidal, at least with regard to aircraft ? clearly unrealistic assumptions.

Since Sept. 11, news reports have quoted terrorists describing the temptation of nuclear power plants as targets of attack. The government has also acknowledged the potential terrorist threat to power plants: National Guard troops have been deployed, no-fly zones have been declared and Meserve himself declared that immediately following the terrorist attacks that an NRC review of security and procedures at nuclear power plants was warranted. The NRC even shut down its Web site, citing concerns that potential assailants might obtain sensitive information about power plants that would prove helpful in an assault.

Yet now that legislation has been introduced attempting to address known security problems at nuclear power plants, the NRC opposes it, and the commission chairman claims the problems targeted in the bill don?t exist.

“The NRC and the nuclear power industry are nearly indistinguishable from each other, and their coziness has been both a regulatory farce and a public disservice for years,” Hauter said. “But the NRC?s lockstep agreement with industry at this particular time, and on this particular issue, is singularly odious. Richard Meserve should change his title from ?commission chairman? to ?industry apologist.? And he should hang his head in shame.”

While the legislation takes several steps in the right direction toward protecting the public from attacks on nuclear power plants, reactors and their high-level nuclear waste will continue to loom as an unnecessary public safety risk, Hauter said.

“If they become law, the enhanced security measures in this legislation will not remove the urgency of replacing nuclear power with conservation and renewable energy sources,” she said. “In fact, this legislative response to Sept. 11 underscores yet again the folly of relying on nuclear power, let alone promoting it, as Bush calls for in his energy plan.”