A challenge of Duke Energy's plan to test a controversial new fuel has focused attention on the public's ability to assess the security of nuclear power plants.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledges it's grappling with a hard question: Where's the balance between deterring terrorists and the public's right to know the plants are safe?
Duke plans to begin tests this spring of mixed-oxide or MOX fuel, which contains weapons-grade plutonium, at its Catawba nuclear plant on Lake Wylie. In theory, terrorists could sabotage or steal plutonium once meant to detonate nuclear weapons.
The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League believes MOX is dangerous and wants to stop the tests. But the group has been denied access to federal documents that it claims could prove that Duke's security measures aren't adequate.
"We've been dealing with the law firm of Block, Stall and Fudgeit," BREDL official Louis Zeller said of NRC lawyers. "Sometimes what Duke and the NRC are asking is not in the interest of security; it's in the interest of withholding information."
Duke says Blue Ridge has been granted extraordinary access to sensitive information, and is grasping at straws to derail the project. So far, the NRC and its staff have seemed to agree.
"It fundamentally gets back to the point that they have no case," said Steve Nesbit, Duke's MOX project manager, "and when they have no case they're going to complain about the process."
A hearing on Blue Ridge's security claims begins today at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md. It's closed to the public, including Zeller.
The freshly-dug moat that encircles the Catawba plant testifies to how nuclear security has changed since Sept. 11, 2001.
The NRC shut down its online database in October, and is slowly restoring documents that aren't deemed likely to help terrorists. Staff members are developing guidelines on when to withhold sensitive information.
It's a hard balance to achieve, said commission spokesman David McIntyre.
"Quite often, the same groups that criticize us for being too secretive then get on our case for putting in the public domain too much information that could be of use to terrorists," he said.
Steven Aftergood, director of the American Federation of Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, said government agencies have varying policies on what information to make public. But regulated industries, he said, consistently get the inside track.
"Instead of checks and balances, we are moving to a `trust me' form of government," he said. "We're moving away from public accountability and toward rule by bureaucracy."
Nuclear power companies meet the NRC's criteria for access to security information because they have to follow commission orders, McIntyre said. Making that information public, he added, would also make it available to terrorists.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, the policy group for the nation's 65 nuclear plants, said utilities have taken special efforts to keep the public informed. Duke gave reporters a rare tour of the Catawba plant in October.
"To the extent (advocacy groups) have a problem, they should take it up with al-Qaida, because that's where it comes from," said NEI spokesman Steve Kerekes. "We're doing as much as we can we feel we can do to be transparent in the security area."