WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 (UPI) -- More than four years after Sept. 11, 2001, the 103 civilian nuclear reactors in the United States are still defenseless against direct air attack, and their minimum requirement for ground security has only been upgraded by a single security guard each.
According to new guidelines mandated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and entered into the Federal Register on Monday, Nov. 7, the 65 nuclear power stations across the United States that house the 103 active civilian nuclear reactors will now be required to have a minimum of five security guards each on regular duty rather than four.
Nor does the NRC appear to require any further upgrading of reactor security as necessary in the foreseeable future.
"All the nuclear power plants are currently meeting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's requirements in regard to safety," NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko told a conference on nuclear power and safety organized by the Nuclear Policy Research Institute at Airlie, Va. Tuesday.
However, critics charge that isn't the case at all. They say no practical measures whatsoever have been taken since Sept. 11, 2001, to protect any of the 103 civilian reactors against having aircraft crash into them.
"No steps have been taken to ensure protection (of the reactors) against air attack. No steps have been taken to protect (the installations) against the number of attackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks," Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap nuclear watch dog group told the NIPRI conference.
"It is just outrageous," said Hirsch, former director of the Program on Nuclear Safety at the University of Santa Cruz. "They are leaving the reactors vulnerable. These are in-place nuclear weapons. If a plane were to attack a reactor there is nothing to protect them. There is no protection. The plants are just completely vulnerable to air attack."
The NRC requirement for each nuclear reactor to have only four guards each was based on the assumption held by the regulators for decades that no more than three terrorists or saboteurs could be expected to attack a nuclear plant at any one time and, therefore, all one needed at any time to protect against them, was a three-plus-one figure. Even the active involvement of 19 dedicated al-Qaida terrorists ready to sacrifice their lives by crashing four hijacked airliners into heavily populated targets on Sept. 11, 2001, did not significantly shake that assumption, he said.
Also, the NRC has not required any of the utilities operating existing nuclear plants to install anti-aircraft missiles, or any other defenses against terrorists who might try to crash rented or hijacked aircraft into the reactors, Hirsch said.
Such an attack need not even destroy or significantly damage the reactor directly. If the primary and back-up water cooling pipes and equipment were damaged enough to interfere long enough with the coolant flow, a meltdown on a Chernobyl scale would inevitably happen.
"Even after a reactor is shut down, it has to be water-cooled for months" until the radioactive fuel inside it has sufficiently cooled down, Hirsch said. "All a terrorist has to do is disrupt the coolant."
Nor does the U.S. Air Force or Air Force Reserve give continual air cover to the 103 civilian reactors.
Nor does it take a nuclear explosion to destroy a working reactor and scatter its deadly radioactive material to be dispersed by the winds. A 1950s experiment that was recorded on film showed a small reactor being destroyed by conventional explosives.
Nuclear safety advocates have proposed encasing the 103 civilian reactors in surrounding steel skeleton structures that would deflect any aircraft from crashing directly into them. "It would cost less than 1 percent of the construction costs of the reactor," Hirsch said.
Although the fuel from the fully-loaded Boeing 767s that crashed into the World Trade Center towers melted the steel skeletons of the buildings after burning for more than an hour each, advocates of the steel skeleton plan say that, just as the World Trade Towers withstood the kinetic energy of being hit by the planes, such protective skeletons around reactors would too.
NRC Commissioner Jaczko did not address these concerns or take questions on them when he appeared at the NIPRI conference. "The NRC needs to be continued to be wedded to safety and security," he said. But he gave no further details of how this was being done.
An in-depth investigation published by Time magazine earlier this year found that there are only 8,000 full-time guards employed to cover all the nuclear power plants in America, giving an average of only 80 per power plant, of whom not more than 60 and probably even less would be on duty on any given shift.
The magazine also reported that the guard towers around the plants were called "iron coffins" by the guards who manned them and that they could not repel even a .50-caliber rifle bullet.
Time reported that many security experts believe U.S. nuclear power stations currently lack the number of guards, fire-power and defensive systems to repel determined attempts to storm them and wreck their operating systems in order to provoke catastrophic core meltdowns by as few as 19 or 20 terrorists.