Safeguard America's Nuclear Plants, Senators Urge

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico, February 1, 2002 (ENS) - "Nuclear reactors in the United States are poorly protected against a coordinated assault from suicidal terrorists, warned Nevada Senator Harry Reid on Friday after receiving briefings on the status of America’s nuclear stockpile and on terrorist attempts to create nuclear devices. "This must change. We must ensure that a nuclear reactor on our soil is never turned against Americans as a weapon of terror," he vowed.

The briefings served as a prelude to Monday's release of President George W. Bush's FY 2003 budget request.

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Senator Harry Reid of Nevada (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Speaking at the Sandia National Laboratory, Senator Reid, a Democrat who serves as the assistant majority leader, announced that he and Senators Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Hillary Clinton of New York and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut would act swiftly to reinforce security at the nation’s 103 nuclear reactors.

The senators are urging speedy passage of the Nuclear Security Act of 2001 they introduced last November. The bill requires the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to revise within 90 days the standard against which facilities must be able to defend, known as the "design basis threat," to reflect more realistic threat scenarios including the terrorist attacks of September 11. Companion legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives.

The senators’ announcement comes just after President Bush informed the nation in his State of the Union Address Tuesday of ongoing terrorist plans to attack American nuclear reactors, saying that diagrams of American nuclear plants had been found in Afghanistan.

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One NRC study found that a catastrophic meltdown of the Indian Point 3 reactor in New York could lead to more than 200,000 deaths (Photo courtesy New York Power Authority)
The President said, "We have found diagrams of American nuclear power plants and public water facilities, detailed instructions for making chemical weapons, surveillance maps of American cities, and thorough descriptions of landmarks in America and throughout the world."

Jeffords said the most recent threats point up the urgent need to strengthen security at the nuclear plants. "We are living in a changed world, one that requires us to look at the darkest scenarios and plan accordingly," he said. "We must do everything within our means to ensure that our nuclear power plants are safe and secure. Our nation demands it and deserves nothing else."

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Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
An Independent, Jeffords chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which has jurisdiction over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Senators Reid, Clinton and Lieberman are members of the committee which recently launched a series of hearings to address security needs at nuclear power facilities.

The senators traveled to Los Alamos National Laboratory on Thursday, and Sandia National Laboratory on Friday to review the security of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and be briefed on American efforts in the global fight against weapons of mass destruction, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, and safeguarding former Soviet Union nuclear material.

Joining Reid in briefings at the Los Alamos and Sandia Labs were New Mexico Senators Pete Domenici, a Republican who is ranking member of the Appropriations Sub-Committee on Energy and Water Development, and Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as well as John Gordon, undersecretary for nuclear security and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Domenici said the lab tours represent a bipartisan show of confidence in the capabilities of the national lab facilities and the New Mexicans who work there.

Domenici said President Bush is expected to request $6.2 billion for that National Nuclear Security Administration's stockpile stewardship program – a $400 million increase over current funding.

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Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico (Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Lab)
Domenici said the briefings will solidify the bipartisan cooperation he and Senator Reid have demonstrated for years on the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee funds the Energy Department, NNSA and the national laboratories.

“There is much our nation can and must do to keep nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists,” said Senator Reid. As chairman of the Appropriations Sub-Committee on Energy and Water Development, Senator Reid oversees funding for the Department of Energy and the National Laboratory program.

Warnings of potential air and ground attacks were issued to nuclear reactor operators by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission earlier this year. The FBI has said that threats against America's nuclear plants might have been recycled from old reports. "If that is the case, then our nation has been given a second chance to act in response to this terrifying information. We may not get a third chance," Reid cautioned.

“The latest warning from the administration that our nation's nuclear power plants have been targeted by Al Quaeda terrorists makes clear that this is no longer a hypothetical scenario,” said Senator Clinton. “It is a very real threat to America's security. Given the urgency of these threats, we are calling on Congress to act immediately to pass our nuclear security bill. NRC depends on Congress for clear direction on this issue."

"Tragically," she said, "it took the horrific events of September 11th and a string of ensuing security breaches for our nation to federalize security at our nation's airports. It should not take another tragedy before we take action to increase security at our nation's nuclear power plants.”

The Nuclear Security Act of 2001 requires the comprehensive assessment of the design, operation, and physical protection of all sensitive nuclear facilities by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission within 180 days. Based on the outcomes of these assessments, plant specific security plans will be developed within six months and implemented within 18 months.

The bill federalizes security at sensitive nuclear facilities through the establishment of a federal nuclear security force within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Members of the force would be required to meet strict qualification standards, background checks, training requirements, and proficiency reviews. The force would be in place in less than a year after the bill becomes law.

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Maine Yankee nuclear power plant (Photo courtesy NRC)
The bill requires security evaluations at sensitive nuclear facilities no less than once every two years. These evaluations would include force-on-force exercises that simulate air, water, and land assaults conducted by a mock terrorist team established within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had been conducting similar evaluations once every six to eight years, and was planning to allow the industry to conduct these evaluations themselves.

The bill requires the NRC to request the deployment of the National Guard and the Coast Guard, and to request the restriction of air space, in the case of a state of war or national emergency.

Under this legislation emergency response exercises would have to be conducted with federal, state and local emergency response personnel within 50 miles of a sensitive nuclear facility no less than once every three years. These exercises will be used to evaluate overall response capabilities and the effectiveness of emergency response plans, including evacuation plans.

The bill establishes sufficient stockpiles of potassium iodide tablets within 50 miles of sensitive nuclear facilities and ensures that locally tailored distribution plans for the potassium iodide are in place. Potassium iodide has been proven to minimize the effects of radiation exposure when taken in a timely manner.