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Special Report

Industry hopes its centralized assets aren't in the crosshairs.
Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 2001

staff to oversee security through its operational safeguards response evaluation (OSRE), which measures the ability of nuclear power plants to protect against attacks aimed at causing radiological sabotage.

The SPA pilot was scheduled to kick off in September, with the Palo Verde nuclear generating facility as the first participant. Arizona Public Service, operator of Palo Verde and a subsidiary of Pinnacle West, had decided to postpone its involvement in the program a week prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. The company now is penciled in as the second participant in the pilot, starting in January, behind TXU Electric's Comanche Peak nuclear plant, southeast of Dallas.

Comanche Peak was selected to implement the SPA program starting in November, but the company could not guarantee its participation would begin as scheduled in the light of the attacks. "The drill date is very tentative at this point," TXU spokesman Rand LaVonn says.

"SPA is an effort to show that utilities can carry out these drills on their own and do a very good job," LaVonn explains. Comanche Peak always has been ranked as one of the most secure nuclear plants in the country and that's probably why it was chosen for the pilot program, he adds.

In announcing the pilot this past summer, the NRC said the SPA program is part of ongoing efforts to identify more efficient and effective ways to assess security at nuclear power plants.

As federal regulators have moved to allow the nuclear power industry to police itself, serious breaches in plant safety still are taking place, according to an NRC security expert. In an assessment of nuclear plant safety, released in 1999, David Orrik, a retired naval officer and security specialist at the NRC, charges cutbacks in direct federal oversight of nuclear plant safety could have devastating effects if a reactor was the target of sabotage.

In his "Differing Professional Opinion" assessment submitted to the NRC's executive director for operations, Orrik notes that through the NRC's OSRE program, significant weaknesses were identified in 27 of the 57 plants that had been evaluated as of February 1999. "'Significant' here means that a real attack would have put the nuclear reactor in jeopardy with the potential core damage and a radiological release, i.e., an American Chernobyl," he writes.

Orrik says OSRE is the only program NRC has that directly focuses on the terrorist threat against nuclear power plants, whether by overt or surreptitious attack.

"And now there is increasing pressure throughout the nuclear power industry to reduce costs, and security forces are taking direct hits; reduction in annual budgets, reduction in number of security officers," Orrik says. "A countervailing pressure is necessary."

In 1999, the Clinton administration decided to keep the OSRE program in place but assured industry the NRC would work toward a program whereby utilities would conduct self-assessments of a portion of their nuclear plants' security, says Paul Gunter, director of the reactor watchdog project at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.

Industry observers note that prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, the NRC and nuclear plant operators had argued