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Senators debate security at nuclear power plants

Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania
Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania  

From Brad Wright
CNN Washington

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senators nervous about nuclear plant security chastised a committee chairman for convening an open hearing on the issue Wednesday. At the same time, the nuclear industry's top regulator said security is well-protected against possible terrorism.

Sen. Bob Smith, R-New Hampshire, led a group of Republicans in rebuking the Environment and Public Works Chairman, Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vermont, for keeping the discussion of nuclear plant security issues in an open forum.

"Our request for a closed hearing was denied or ignored," Smith said, "And now we are going to talk about nuclear security, about all of our power plants in front of the entire world on C-SPAN, including all of those who may want to do us harm. I find this absolutely unbelievable that we are doing this."

Jeffords responded that when a closed briefing on nuclear plant security was held last year, only he and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, showed up. Jeffords also said it's clear the public has a substantial interest in plant security, and he noted that the request for a closed hearing came only Wednesday.

Although the security of nuclear power plants presents a difficult issue in the post-September 11 environment, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard A. Meserve testified that he's "comfortable" with the security at the nation's 104 nuclear plants for now.

"We've learned ... that ... civilian nuclear power plants are at the very top of the list of targets that al Qaeda would attack if they could successfully do so," testified Rep. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts.

The hearing was convened to discuss legislation that would federalize security at the nuclear plants as well as allow security personnel at the plants to carry weapons.

Both Markey and Meserve said they were concerned that state law dictates whether nuclear plant security personnel can carry weapons and have authority to "shoot to kill."

But Meserve said there is no need to federalize security at the nuclear plants, even though some plants fared better than others during a series of tests.

"We are comfortable with the security at our nuclear power plants," Meserve said. "We are not aware of any significant credible threat that is directed at the power plants, although obviously there are plants or facilities that are of concern. We had strong security at these facilities before September 11th and that security has been significantly enhanced."

One piece of legislation would require the NRC to evaluate "design basis threats" or the threat posed by terrorists against a perceived design weakness. Since September 11, such a threat could include anything from a coordinated attack by highly educated, suicidal terrorists who could explode a tractor-trailer full of explosives, to crashing an airliner into a reactor building.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri, told the committee that nuclear plants are not as vulnerable as some might think.

"Nuclear power plants are safe ... by their own inherent design," Bond said. "Typical reactor containment walls are made of heavily reinforced concrete, up to six feet thick. I urge all of you, if you haven't seen it, to view the videotape of a government test where they crashed an F-4 jet fighter into a containment wall at nearly 500 miles per hour. The jet was obliterated and the containment wall was penetrated only by two inches."




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