WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The federal agency charged with safeguarding nuclear reactors has underestimated the potential for terrorists to attack small research reactors on college campuses as well as the potential impact of such attacks, congressional investigators said in a report released Tuesday.
Investigators said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission bases security requirements at the nation's research reactors on "questionable assumptions" and needs to reassess both threats and possible consequences.
But in a pointed response, the commission said the report by the Government Accountability Office is flawed and "misrepresents the considerable efforts made by the NRC" to improve security at research reactors after the September 11, 2001, attacks. PDF: Full GAO Report.
There are 37 research reactors in the United States. Four are operated by national laboratories under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy. But the remaining 33 are on college campuses and are licensed and regulated by the federal nuclear commission.
Although research reactors are less powerful than commercial nuclear power reactors, they may nevertheless be targets for terrorists determined to steal reactor fuel for use in a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb, the GAO said. Or terrorists could sabotage a reactor to disperse radiation into neighboring communities, it added.
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, said the commission's security and emergency response requirements "are largely based on the regulations it had in place before September 11."
The NRC assumed that terrorists would use certain weapons and tactics in attacking a reactor but "did not fully consider alternative attack scenarios that could be more damaging," the GAO said.
The agency also assumed that only a small portion of a research reactor would be damaged in an attack, the report said.
The report identifies potential shortcomings at some of the reactors the agency's investigators visited. At one reactor, the GAO said, direct access to the reactor room was unlocked and unalarmed. It said the operator, which it did not identify in the public version of the report, was relying on "another security measure" that might be overcome.
The report says that before 2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not require research reactor operators to conduct extensive background checks on their staff members. But the commission has since begun subjecting them to FBI background checks. In May 2007, the commission ordered such checks for all staff members who are allowed access to the reactors without escorts.
The report also said that the commission does not require first responders to reactor security alarms to carry weapons. Unarmed campus police -- and not local law enforcement -- are designated first responders to alarms, the report said.
"The events of September 11, 2001 ... demonstrate that terrorists are capable of innovating how they conduct attacks," the GAO said. "Consequently, we believe that [the nuclear commission] should have considered a fuller range of threats, including both the threats that have occurred and the possibility of emerging threats."
In a five-page rebuttal letter, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Executive Director Luis Reyes wrote that the GAO report "provides an unbalanced assessment" of the commission's actions.
Reyes said the report appears to be based predominantly on reports from Sandia National Laboratories and Idaho National Laboratory. Both labs, he said, wrote letters challenging the use of their material in the GAO report.
The commission called the attack scenarios "highly unlikely" and said the GAO did "not provide a sound technical basis to demonstrate that a [research reactor] could be damaged as GAO assumes."
Although the report focuses on university-based research reactors, the GAO said it also found a security weakness at a Department of Energy research reactor.
"We discovered that a Web site for one DOE research reactor contained information about its refueling schedule. According to security experts, reactors are more vulnerable during refueling because large doors that are normally tightly secured must be opened to deliver fuel," the report said.
After the GAO brought the matter to the energy agency's attention, the agency removed the information from its Web site, the report said.
A Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman said the commission considers the GAO report "unbalanced."
"It misrepresents and excludes facts, and fails to acknowledge experts who disagree. The report's credibility is questionable at best," the spokesman said. E-mail to a friend