By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007; A04
Federal regulators plunged into an energy and national security controversy yesterday by ruling that the nation's 103 nuclear power plants do not need to protect themselves from potential attacks by terrorists using airplanes.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's 5-to-0 ruling was in response to a 2004 petition by the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angeles nonprofit group, that said nuclear plants should build shields made of steel I-beams and cabling or take other steps to prevent a release of radiation in case of an air attack. Eight state attorneys general backed the petition.
The group cited the 9/11 Commission, which said in its report that the al-Qaeda plot to hit the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon in 2001 had originally contemplated hijacking 10 planes and striking one or more nuclear power plants.
"Nuclear power plants are pre-emplaced nuclear weapons near major cities," said Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap. "They can't blow up like a nuclear bomb, but they can release a thousand times the radiation of the Hiroshima bomb. They are the most attractive target for a terrorist to hit in our country."
But NRC Chairman Dale Klein said, "Nuclear power plants are inherently robust structures that our studies show provide adequate protection in a hypothetical attack by an airplane."
The commission might impose stricter requirements on new plants, which some nuclear foes hope will add costs or delay licenses for industry expansion.
For now, however, the NRC said that guarding against airborne attacks was the job of the military and other agencies. It added that nuclear plant operators were already required to be prepared to respond to fires or explosions, whatever the cause. The commission said that it was toughening requirements for reactor operators to repel "multiple, coordinated groups of attackers, suicide attacks and cyber threats."
Some members of Congress said that the NRC's steps fell short of what was needed.
"I am disappointed," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). The NRC decision "reflects an inadequate, industry-influenced approach that sacrifices security in favor of corporate profits."
On Friday, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, had written to the agency that "the communities that surround existing plants need to be confident that the NRC, as the regulator charged with nuclear safety, did all it could to ensure that plants defend against current security threats" -- including, she added, "large attacking forces and commercial aircraft."
Yesterday, Boxer said that her "initial reaction" was that the NRC "did not follow the direction of Congress to ensure that our nuclear power plants are protected from air- or land-based terrorist threats."
The 9/11 Commission called nuclear plants "vital facilities" and pointed to evidence that the plants had attracted al-Qaeda's attention. The commission's report said that senior al-Qaeda planner Khalid Sheik Mohammed told interrogators after his capture that nuclear plants were on his original target list. And the commission said that during a meeting in Spain in July 2001, Mohamed Atta, thought to be the lead hijacker on Sept. 11, had considered targeting a nuclear facility he had seen during familiarization flights near New York -- a target he and his conspirators referred to as "electrical engineering." In the end, Atta did not have a chance to discuss the idea with senior al-Qaeda leaders.
Timothy J. Roemer, a member of the 9/11 Commission, said that "there should be agencies in our government that make this as high a priority as al-Qaeda makes it." He also said that as the nuclear industry expands, "they should also shoulder some of the burden of our environment and our defense."
The question of whether nuclear facilities should be required to protect themselves against air attacks is frequently mentioned as a cost issue by electric power companies interested in building nuclear plants. There has not been a new order placed for a nuclear reactor in the United States since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. Tax incentives in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 have sparked preliminary planning on about 19 nuclear power projects, and several companies are expected to seek NRC approval later this year.
Many of the industry's critics have seized on national security as a reason to block new plants or to raise the costs of construction. Hirsch said, however, that building an I-beam and cabling shield would add only about 1 percent to the cost of a plant.
"Where are the resources best put to use to protect our population?" said Steven Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute. "There will be far more value in putting those resources toward other parts of the infrastructure that aren't nearly as well protected as nuclear power plants." He cited a 2002 computer modeling study that said a jetliner crash at a nuclear site would not lead to a radiation leak.
The Supreme Court this month decided not to hear an appeal of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said the NRC had violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it failed to include a terrorist attack in an environmental impact report for an application to create dry-cask storage at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant near San Luis Obispo, Calif. Pacific Gas and Electric, which owns Diablo Canyon, was granted the license, but the NRC must now reconsider the application.
One NRC commissioner, Gregory B. Jaczko, dissented on the Diablo Canyon license. "I strongly believe . . . that any new nuclear power plants built in this country should be designed to withstand commercial aircraft crashes."
Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, which operates five nuclear units at three locations, is weighing a new plant. It has chosen a design by Areva that is supposed to protect against airplane crashes by doubling the thickness of the containment vessel and redesigning other facilities. One such plant is under construction in Finland; another is planned for France, said Areva spokesman Penny Phelps. A Constellation spokesman said the plant was appealing because it was designed for "a spectrum of events."