Nuclear Security: Assessed by the Media

Posing as prospective graduate students, two young women tried to get inside Kansas State University's nuclear reactor last summer.

They videotaped the building and asked questions about security, according to reactor workers. But they weren't terrorists or protesters. Instead, they were part of an undercover team of ABC News interns probing for security weaknesses at reactors on 25 college campuses, including K-State and the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Even before the two women made it to K-State's reactor, however, their strange behavior had drawn the attention of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

ABC News' "Primetime Live" will broadcast the conclusions of the investigation tonight. A written preview of the report was released Wednesday on ABC's Web site.

In the report, ABC says its interns found "gaping holes" in security at many of the 25 campus reactors visited by its reporters — including guards asleep on the job and doors left unlocked. Though both schools' reactors were part of the investigation, K-State and MU are not singled out for criticism in the report.

But that is little comfort to university officials, who say they were left feeling a little stung by the network's sting operation.

"It was a little slimy," said K-State spokeswoman Cheryl May.

The two ABC women -- Harvard University graduate student Hsing Wei and Columbia University graduate student Melia Patria -- came to the K-State reactor on June 29. They came with a home video camera, gave their real names and said they wanted a tour, according to school officials.

That's not unusual -- about 2,500 people a year tour the reactor. The school's nuclear engineering department operates the reactor for research and instruction. Reactor operator Evan Cullens said tours for the public are part of the job.

But these two weren't your average physics class field trip. Reactor workers said the two flirted with the reactor staff and seemed particularly interested in security and the reactor control room.

Attempts to reach Patria and Wei were unsuccessful. The project was a joint effort of ABC News and the Carnegie Corp. of New York. All 10 interns are Carnegie Fellows.

In a written statement, ABC News spokesman Adam Pockriss said: "The goal of the investigation was to spot-check security procedures at the various reactors and conduct a field test of how easy or difficult it would be for the average person -- not a television camera crew -- to gain access to the reactors."

The NRC will investigate ABC's claims and take action if any security lapses are found, NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said.

The NRC sent a letter to ABC saying that even in the event of terrorism or sabotage, the nation's campus reactors pose a "highly unlikely threat."

That's because of security requirements and the relatively small amount of highly radioactive material used in the reactors. May said the type and amount of material at K-State wouldn't be helpful to a terrorist.

"You could not make a bomb from what we have," she said.

The University of Missouri-Columbia had its own run-in with the journalists, according to MU spokesman Christian Basi. He said two young women tried to persuade reactor employees to let them in over the summer, but they were rebuffed. The MU reactor isn't open to tours. Basi said ABC News later called and confirmed that the women had been reporters.

All visitors to K-State's reactor must provide identification, submit to a search of their belongings, and leave all purses and bags in the front. Cameras record visitor movements, and guests are never left alone inside the building.

When Patria and Wei showed up at the K-State reactor, the staff had a good idea who the women really were. After other campus reactors reported similarly strange visits, federal authorities had figured out that the visitors were actually undercover reporters. The FBI passed the tip along to K-State.

In hopes of proving their suspicions, reactor employees asked the women to pose for a photograph. To get the shot, Cullens said, he had to resort to his own little deception.

"They were playing the flirt card to get information," he said. "We wanted a picture of them for the FBI, so we flirted back."

At one point, a reactor researcher asked the women what had drawn them to K-State. One of them, Cullens recalled, said her boyfriend lived in Kansas.

"We asked where, and she sort of pointed off to the southwest and said, ‘Over there,' " he said. "We figured there had to be something strange going on."

Ohio State University's reactor was one of the first visited by Wei and Patria. Earle Holland, director of research information, said that the women acted suspiciously and that the staff asked them to leave before the tour ended.

After the women left, the staff called the police, who called the FBI, who called the NRC and Homeland Security.

Because the women had used their real names, it didn't take long for authorities to figure out they were working for ABC.

"I believe in investigative journalism," Holland said. "We're willing to take our lumps when we deserve them. But this was a cheap shot."

University of Kansas journalism professor Ted Frederickson, who studies journalistic ethics, said undercover reporting is a dangerous tool that should be avoided when information can be collected in other ways.

He speculated that a lot of information about reactor security could be found in federal reports.

"When we're supposedly in the truth business, being untruthful hurts," he said.