Questions about security

Violations and radioactive fuel at nuke plants make for a nightmarish scenario

When nuclear waste started piling up at Plant Hatch, the company that operates the plant, Southern Nuclear Operating Co., began storing highly radioactive spent fuel in outdoor storage containers. Seven such storage casks sit on a lot behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire outside Plant Hatch, 11 miles north of Baxley, Ga.

With America's heightened concern over vulnerability to terrorism, that spent fuel raises a question of safety for Georgia residents. As well, Creative Loafing has obtained a list of six security breaches at the state's two nuclear plants. Those items may have been considered minor or insignificant in pre-Sept. 11 America, but they now point to potentially hazardous lapses in plant safeguards.

Southern Nuclear keeps its used nuclear fuel in the Holtec HI-STAR 100 model storage cask, which can be punctured by a variety of hand-held anti-tank missiles, according to physicist Marvin Resnikoff, a senior associate with Radioactive Waste Management Associates who's studying the integrity of the casks for the states of Utah and Nevada. Each cask holds 68 radioactive fuel rod clusters.

Anti-tank missiles such as the Milan and Tow-2 "can penetrate about a meter of steel. There are thousands of them [the missiles] in use throughout the world."

If a storage cask was hit by one of those missiles, Resnikoff says, "material would be released from the casks. How much, and how many number of health effects that would result from it — that is a much longer story."

Says the NRC in a release issued last Friday: "In the event that a cask were breached, any impacts would be localized."

In this case, the NRC's use of the word localized is relative, if not inaccurate altogether. If a missile caused an explosion — as they are known to do — the smoke could carry a cocktail of the most dangerous forms of radioactivity hundreds, maybe thousands of miles.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, officials at the nation's 103 nuclear power plants tightened security based on a recommendation from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Southern Nuclear Operating Co., the Southern Co. subsidiary that runs the two nuclear power plants here in Georgia — Plant Hatch and Plant Vogtle (located 26 miles south east of Augusta) — beefed up its security.

Spokeswoman Alice Gordon says Southern Nuclear has no specific plans to protect the exposed casks, except for heightened security precautions. She also declined to specify what measures they were taking.

That's understandable; terrorists read newspapers too. The NRC says such measures would "generally" include increased patrols, more coordination with local authorities, and limited access to the sites.

But security lapses at nuclear power plants have been a concern long before Sept. 11. Most of the nuclear plants in the U.S. were built in the '60s and '70s, at a time when events such as the destruction of the World Trade Center were unimaginable. Still, there are dozens of reports and memos written by experts and activists warning the NRC that the power plants could be vulnerable to freak accidents and terrorist attacks.

Power companies proceeded to build 103 nuclear plants around the country anyway. Those plants are now latent bombs. Terrorists need only to light the fuse.

David Orrik, director of the NRC's Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation program, told the
Los Angeles Times'' last week that from 1991 to 2000, anti-terrorist exercises at almost half of 68 plants tested showed a "potential vulnerability." That means the "attack" teams got far enough inside the plant to damage the reactor core.

Plant Hatch underwent a mock attack drill just six months ago. The last test of Plant Vogtle's security was in February 1996. Though the NRC report didn't list any major security problems, there could have been deficiencies because the complete results of the drills aren't open to the public.

Plant Farley, a nuclear plant outside Dothan, Ala., 30 miles from the Georgia border, and operated by Southern Nuclear, failed its mock terrorist attack in July, 2000.

"We're always secure because of the nature of our industry," says Southern Nuclear Operating spokeswoman Alice Gordon. "We probably have one of the most secure facilities in the industry."

But a look at past security violations at Plant Hatch and Plant Vogtle shows that they're hardly impenetrable fortresses.

"Incident" reports show that on Oct. 26, 2000, Plant Hatch security protocols were violated. Because details aren't made public, there's no way of knowing what form that violation took. Maybe it was a janitor who took a wrong turn looking for a mop bucket. Maybe it was something else all together. Four days later, a similar security violation involving an unescorted individual gaining access to a restricted area occurred at the same plant.

There were five other security violations that we know about at Plant Hatch and Plant Vogtle going back to 1992.

Plant Vogtle's Unit 2 reactor was left "inadequately attended, caused by [a] mental lapse on part of [plant] operator," in September 1992, according to the NRC.

At Plant Vogtle's first unit, sensitive documents detailing the plant's safeguards were found by an NRC inspector in an unsecured area. That happened twice; once in September and once in November of 1996.

In a Jan. 3, 2001, inspection report, the NRC cited Southern Nuclear Operating Co. for giving an unauthorized individual access to restricted and vital areas of the plant.

On Feb. 2, 1999, a plant operator at Plant Vogtle was busted for being under the influence of alcohol.

An individual, presumably a plant employee, was given a clearance badge to enter Plant Vogtle even though he lied about his criminal background. Because of the screening process, the individual's criminal history came to light on March 29, 1999. By that time, he wasn't working at Vogtle anymore, but was working at two other unnamed nuclear plants. Southern Nuclear did not follow its own security procedure that calls for notifying other plants about the individual's criminal background. Because of that slip-up, he was allowed to work for other nuclear plants for a year-and-a-half. He was finally stopped from getting into nuclear facilities when he tried to get into Vogtle again.

"We've addressed those issues of security matters," Gordon says. "We feel comfortable in the assessment that we have taken care of those [security incidents]. As far as any particular details, I can't go into the specifics of that."

What about commercial jumbo jets, the weapon of choice for suicidal terrorists bent on causing as much bloodshed as possible?

The NRC acknowledges that nuclear power plants weren't built with that danger in mind. "Nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes," according to last Friday's NRC release. "Detailed engineering analyses of a large airliner crash have not yet been performed."

So says the NRC, but six days after the terrorist attacks, delegates from 132 nations met in Vienna to discuss tightening security and increasing anti-terrorism defenses at nuclear plants around the world.

They concluded that if a commercial jet hit a nuclear plant, the reactor wouldn't explode. But the plant's cooling systems and back-up safety systems could be destroyed, causing the nuclear fuel rods to overheat. That could produce a Chernobyl-like steam explosion that could release radioactivity into the atmosphere. The radioactivity released from Chernobyl in 1986 killed more than 4,000 people.

The Sept. 11 attacks have justly given nuclear power opponents even more ammo in their fight against nuclear power.

"This is a scary time, and what's so frustrating is that people have been studying these risks [of terrorist attacks] for years, and they've always decided those risks were negligible because the probability is so low," says Sara Barczak, safe energy director for Georgians For Clean Energy. "There is a very small risk, but if it happens, it happens."

Given the recent disasters, one would think that these low-probability risks would be reviewed in a new light. But Ken Clark, a spokesman in the NRC's Atlanta office, would only say the higher-ups are considering increased security measures.

The NRC's first challenge, it seems, is finding an audience in Washington. In June, NRC Commissioner Richard Meserve sent a letter to Vice President Cheney to request that the NRC be included in the development of the nation's anti-terrorist plan, called the Interagency Domestic Terrorism Concept of Operations Plan.

"In the absence of a specified NRC role in responding to a terrorist-related nuclear or radiological emergency, it is possible that confusion could arise during an actual event from incomplete plans, which would compromise the success of the Federal response," Meserve wrote.

He also told the vice president the he'd seek new legislation that would strengthen the NRC's anti-terrorism program. He wants new laws that would make it a federal crime to bring unauthorized weapons and explosives into facilities the NCR regulates like nuclear power plants.

Hopefully, that legislation, and even stronger proposals, will be given a higher priority.