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Report: U.S. nuclear plants remain vulnerable to terrorists

By Jamie Crawford, CNN
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Thu August 15, 2013
 The study released Thursday was done at the request of the Defense Department.
The study released Thursday was done at the request of the Defense Department.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Report warns of vulnerability to terrorists, sabotage
  • It says reactors near coasts are particularly at risk
  • Government agency challenges the findings

Washington (CNN) -- None of the 107 nuclear facilities in the United States are protected against a high-force terrorist attack, and some are still vulnerable to the theft of bomb-grade nuclear fuel, or sabotage intended to cause a nuclear meltdown, a new report says.

The Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas released the report Thursday. It wants to shine a light on the security gaps that still exist more than 10 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"It would be a tragedy if the United States had to look back after such an attack on a nuclear reactor and say that we could have and should have done more to prevent the catastrophe," said Prof. Alan J. Kuperman, co-author of the report.

The study was done at the request of the Defense Department after the Pentagon commissioned an academic study of the security vulnerabilities of the nation's 104 commercial nuclear power reactors and three civilian research reactors.

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The federal agency charged with overseeing the safety of civilian nuclear facilities challenged the report.

"The report released today by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project is a rehash of arguments from a decade ago when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the country were reconsidering nuclear power plant security in the wake of the September 11 attacks," David McIntyre, a spokesman with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said in a statement.

"The report contains no new information or insight. The NRC has strengthened security requirements for commercial nuclear power plants and remains confident that these important facilities are adequately protected," McIntyre said.

Among the shortcomings cited in the report are the lack of regulations to protect against shipborne attacks at nuclear reactors situated near the coasts of California, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina and Virginia.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, along with the Departments of Energy and Defense follow some form of Design Basis Threat (DBT) analysis in devising the physical security plans of the nation's nuclear facilities.

According to the report, there have been upgrades to the DBT scenarios since 9/11, but still fall short the authors say, because they only account for a scenario where a facility is assaulted by five to six attackers.

The report criticizes what it says are differing levels of DBT approach to the facilities by the agencies that oversee them, leading to varying levels of security at facilities that contain an identical amount of nuclear assets.

"Less than two dozen miles from the White House and Capitol Hill, a nuclear reactor contains bomb-grade uranium but is not required to protect against even lesser 'design basis threat' of terrorism," Kuperman said. "It would be the height of irresponsibility to fail to take action now."

Greater attention to the possibility of insiders working at such facilities, who could possibly assist in the execution of sabotage, should also be taken into account in any upgrade of security, the report said.

The report calls for a uniform level of DBT for all U.S. nuclear facilities that pose catastrophic risks if attacked, while also calling on the federal government to fill any funding gaps in security preparedness that utility companies are unable to cover.

From its role as an academic research organization, the NPPP says it does not take a position on nuclear power but rather pursues an agenda focused on combatting nuclear terrorism.

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