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."
MOX fuel is a joint U.S.-Russia effort to reduce the amount of weapons-grade plutonium stored globally. The fuel blends plutonium with enriched uranium, the usual fuel for nuclear power plants. Duke, which expects to save money on government-subsidized fuel, is the only U.S. utility thus far to agree to use MOX.
Some folks in Tega Cay, the community that sits just across Lake Wylie from the Catawba plant, are worried, said Mayor Bob Runde. But most people who attended a public meeting on MOX last year, he said, seemed to sense little increased danger from the new fuel.
"I thought the biggest danger involved was they had to take this (plutonium) to Europe" to make the test fuel, Runde said. "As far as the burning of it here, it's insignificant compared to what we already do now."
Blue Ridge argues that Duke should not be granted the exemptions it has requested from some security measures for protecting the MOX test fuel.
Those measures, such as maintaining a tactical response team and erecting additional physical barriers, are tailored for facilities that handle plutonium. Duke says the safeguards it already has in place perform the same functions.
"We don't think this is an attractive (terrorism) target at all," Nesbit said. "But we've made our preparations based on the fact it could be."
In May, the NRC staff found that Duke has toughened its security to protect the MOX fuel. The exemptions Duke seeks are legal and won't pose undue risks to public safety, the staff said.
The commission has allowed Blue Ridge's attorney and technical expert, who have low-level security clearances, access to some material on condition they don't divulge the information.
But the NRC ruled that the group can't see the details -- such as the size, training and weaponry of an attacking force -- of the terrorism that plutonium-handling facilities are expected to thwart.
Without that information, the group says, it doesn't know what security standard the NRC expects Duke to attain.
"In effect, the commission has tied one hand behind our backs," said Diane Curran, Blue Ridge's Washington attorney.
"It's just not a good way to problem-solve, to blindfold somebody and let them feel the elephant in a few places and describe what it is. You can make a guess, but it's not the same as seeing it."