U.S. nuclear plants vulnerable to terrorists

NRC-licensed facilities found to be susceptible to theft of nuclear material, acts of sabotage

Even some nuclear sites operated by the federal government were found to be unprotected because officials mistakenly believe that these sites are not valued by terrorists or that the consequences of an attack on them would not be catastrophic. However, the report argues that it is impossible to know which "high-value" targets are preferred by terrorists or which could result in the greatest consequences.

The NPPP is recommending that the government require a sufficient level of protection at all potentially "high-consequence" nuclear targets across the country. Essentially, Kuperman said that the DBT should be the same for all U.S. nuclear facilities – public or private – that pose catastrophic risk. Kuperman was quick to point out, however, that they are not advocating for the elimination of DBT approach. "Our prescription is don’t replace the Design Basis Threat approach – fix it," he said.

Kuperman said they concede the fact that it may be unaffordable or impractical for utilities to provide the level of protection against a maximum credible terror threat, so they are also suggesting that the NRC "subdivide" the threat into things that should be protected against by the utility and credible threats that the U.S. government should be required to protect against. The report found that since 2001, the U.S. nuclear industry has spent more than $2 billion on security enhancements to their physical protection systems.

Despite the vulnerabilities that still exist, Kuperman said the NRC has made some strides since 9/11. Prior to the attacks on the Twin Towers, Kuperman said the NRC’s DBT only took into account attacks by a maximum of three terrorists at one time, but since then, he said the number of attackers has been increased to five or six.

"Without question, that is a mandate to improve security. The question is, is it adequate to the challenge and it’s hard for us to understand any sort of rationale for saying, ‘you only need to protect against five or six' when we know that more than 10 years ago, terrorists were already contemplating and executing attacks that coordinated multiple teams totaling 19 attackers and intending to use 20 attackers," he said. "We absolutely agree there have been upgrades, we commend the upgrades, but our concern is that they’re not enough. And if the NRC says, 'we can’t go anymore than that because we would bankrupt the utilities,' then the first thing is you have to question whether the utilities can’t do anymore at all. To the extent the utilities can’t do much more, then it is the responsibility of the U.S. government to come in and fill that gap and the problem is that’s not occurring."

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