Blueprints for terrorists?
Sensitive nuclear info ends up on NRC Web site
From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When David Lochbaum perused a government Web site one day last summer, he came across documents he thought would be of limited value to the public -- but a potential bonanza for terrorists.
Included in a Nuclear Regulatory Commission report on Waterford III Nuclear Power Station near New Orleans, Louisiana, were diagrams showing all the toxic chemicals and pipelines near Waterford III -- including the natural gas pipelines that lace through the complex.
Explicit in detail, the maps even showed gas line valves, the amount of pressure in the lines, and the proximity of gas lines to air intakes for the nuclear plant's control room.
Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog group, said he did what he always does when he finds sensitive documents on the NRC's Web site: He called the NRC's nuclear safety managers and suggested they remove the diagram. They did.
Lochbaum isn't alone in finding sensitive material on the NRC Web site. In a four-hour time span recently, Scott Portzline, a Pennsylvania piano tuner and civic activist, found material about four university nuclear laboratories, including floor plans and lists of the radioactive materials they use.
The four schools were Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont; Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston; Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota; and the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Portzline said the floor plans would be valuable to terrorists, allowing them to hunt for potential sources of nuclear material from the relative obscurity of their computers, without taking the riskier step of conducting surveillance.
Using the NRC Web site, a terrorist "could prioritize the largest sources, more dangerous sources or the weapons grade sources" of radioactive material, Portzline said. "You'd know exactly where the sources are, having never visited the facility."
The NRC said Tuesday it is trying to balance the public's right to know with the need for security, and that information is sometimes put on the Web site that, upon review, doesn't belong there.
After the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Patriot-News reported Portzline's find on October 3, the NRC began reviewing the material. A CNN check last week showed the material was still on the Web site, but the NRC said Tuesday it has since removed the material, saying it was prudent to do so.
Roy Zimmerman, director of the NRC's Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response, said the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks highlighted the need to safeguard sensitive information, a process that has taken several steps. In the days immediately after the attacks, the NRC took the Web site entirely off line. When it was restored weeks later, it had been purged of more than 1,000 sensitive documents, he said.
Initially, the agency decided to withhold documents if "the release would provide clear and significant benefit to a terrorist in planning an attack," Zimmerman said.
In early summer, the agency tightened the restriction, opting to exclude information "that could be useful or could reasonably be useful to a terrorist," he said. "It is currently unlikely that the information on our Web site would provide significant advantage to assist a terrorist."
'Next tier' information
The information that Portzline found represents a "next tier" of information that deserves review, he said.
An NRC spokesman told CNN Tuesday the agency is considering establishing a task force to address the Web site issue.
Experts asked by CNN to review the Portzline material agreed it doesn't belong on public Web sites, but said that doesn't necessarily mean the material is of value to terrorists.
One expert likened it to a bank, saying customers may know the location of the vault, but still don't have the wherewithal to empty it.
"It [the Web site] may help a little, but if someone's determined to do this, it won't help them much. If someone wanted to find this out, they can," said David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security.
"If secrecy is your only security, then you don't have it. Because everybody that has a brain knows that physics departments use radioactive sources ... and it's not that hard to find where they are," he said.
Lochbaum, who discovered the Waterford power plant maps last summer, said so far this year, he has notified the NRC of six documents he believed should not have been posted; the agency removed four of them.
One document that was removed was an instruction manual for metal and explosive detectors used at Waterford nuclear plant entrances, he said.
"If you were trying to defeat those detectors, having that kind of information would be usable," he said.
"The problem is the NRC is in the habit of trying to close the barn door after the horse is out," said Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst for the environmental group Greenpeace.
"Every one of these reactors is a pre-positioned weapon of mass destruction that could be used to hurt this country," he said, adding that sensitive material should be caught before it is posted -- not afterwards.
The NRC's Zimmerman said, "We are appreciative of the public bringing these particular documents to our attention. Our plan, though, is to get out in front of this."
He said the NRC is training licensees to highlight sensitive material when they submit it.
Said Lochbaum, "I'm ... not blaming the NRC for the occasional document that gets out. They handle thousands of documents a year. So even if you're 99.9 percent [efficient at editing documents] an occasional document gets out. I think that's something we have to live with.
"I think everybody's doing their best under the situation."