Sentinel Editorial: The NRC's counter-terrorism project has ended
Last March, inspectors from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tried to scale security fences at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, and they succeeded at six of the 10 spots they picked. And one inspector smuggled a fake pistol past a security check. It was a pretty successful test, for the NRC.
The exercise was part of the commission's Operational Safeguards Response Evaluations, a program started in 1991 to see how well individual nuclear power plants would fare if they were attacked by terrorists.
Most NRC safety programs are aimed at preventing accidents, but it also makes sense to consider the possibility that a dedicated group of fanatics might target a nuclear plant for sabotage. The consequences of such an attack could prove almost unimaginably catastrophic. With the various suicide bombings and other terrorist threats against American institutions that have taken place in recent years, one might imagine that the inspection program would be beefed up.
Instead, the government has decided to shut it down. The reason? It was too costly.
Not to the federal government. It was just a $90,000-a-year operation, involving three NRC employees. No, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the security program was eliminated most likely because it proved costly for power-plant owners, who complained they had to spend between $140,000 and $800,000 a year to meet higher physical-security standards.
The Vermont Yankee incident was much less serious than it may have seemed from press reports. The mock invaders did get over the fence, but it was a planned event; they were checking the system with help from plant security officials. Real invaders would likely have been shot off the fence. As for the toy gun carried by one inspector, the X-ray system has since been tightened. The plant passed a follow-up inspection in August.
Vermont Yankee spokesmen have often contended that no one with a weapon could possibly get inside the reactor building in Vernon. The point was made most recently during an investigation of the fact that Carl Drega had passed security checks before working at four nuclear plants, including Vermont Yankee and Seabrook Station. The heavily armed Drega subsequently went berserk in Colebook, New Hampshire, killing four people. Nonetheless, the NRC decided not to alter its security-clearance procedures.
It's difficult for ordinary citizens to know what to think about all this. No one wants to be alarmist, and there have never been any terrorist attacks on U.S. nuclear plants. But surely there are better ways to save money than by shutting down this type of program. We note that 11 NRC inspection officials have filed written comments objecting to the decision. And David Orrik, the program's head, told the Los Angeles Times that his team "was able to reach and simulate sabotaging enough equipment to cause a core melt" at one unnamed plant. Let's hope that plant got the message. It apparently will not be repeated.