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Two Years After the September 11th Attacks, Nuclear Plants Are Still Vulnerable

September 10, 2003

Two Years After the September 11th Attacks, Nuclear Plants Are Still Vulnerable


Statement by Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen

Over the past two years, Congress and the Bush administration have launched two wars and poured billions of dollars into fighting terrorism. So it is shameful and baffling that they have failed to address one of the most glaring vulnerabilities in the United States – our insecure nuclear power plants.

The 103 nuclear reactors in the country were never designed to withstand the type of attack we saw in 2001, and we now know that al Qaeda specifically discussed targeting nuclear facilities.

Nearly half of the facilities tested under a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) program between 1991 and 2001 had serious vulnerabilities identified. Those tests have been discontinued, and the NRC now claims that security has been enhanced and there’s nothing to worry about.

But a 2002 report by the Project on Government Oversight found that security forces at nuclear power plants remain understaffed, under-equipped and under-trained. Further, nuclear facility employees surveyed in 2002 by the NRC Inspector General stated that safety training was based on outdated scenarios and left nuclear sites vulnerable to sabotage. The agency issued new security regulations, but the rules were crafted in secret meetings and never opened to public comment. Public Citizen and the California group Mothers for Peace sued the agency this summer, so that the public – not just the nuclear industry – can have input on the rules.

President Bush is asking Congress to authorize $87 billion for military and reconstruction costs in Iraq, and many lawmakers have already pledged to grant that request. If they are willing to commit this enormous sum of money to the administration’s war on terror, it would follow that Congress would mandate security improvements at commercial nuclear facilities.

Instead, Congress has almost diabolically worked against any legislation to improve nuclear security. Lawmakers have stripped security amendments introduced by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) from 2002 energy legislation and allowed the Nuclear Security Act of 2002 – which would have established an interagency task force to evaluate security, emergency response and evacuation plans at nuclear facilities – to languish.

Now, House and Senate conferees are meeting to reconcile another package of energy legislation, passed in both Houses, that piles on subsidies for fossil fuels industries and for nuclear power, including incentives for nuclear research and development, tax breaks for nuclear operators and federal matching funds for licensing new reactors. Both bills also reauthorize the Price-Anderson Act, which limits the amount of insurance nuclear operators must carry and puts taxpayers on the hook for potentially billions in damages in the event of a nuclear disaster. But there are no provisions of either bill that address nuclear security. It is unacceptable that energy legislation could pass without taking these steps to protect all of us.

One year ago, Public Citizen joined 10 other national environmental and public interest groups to demand that lawmakers enact legislation to address security concerns. We said then that another year must not be allowed to pass without action on this matter.

Another year has passed, and millions who live and work near nuclear facilities are still exposed to unconscionable risks. Congress, what are you thinking?