The bomb that ripped through New York's World Trade Center on February 26 sent a bone-rattling message to everyone whose job consists of keeping airports, military bases and other high-profile targets safe from harm: tighten security.
But even as the smoke was clearing from the shattered skyscraper, the nation's big utilities--including Arizona Public Service Company--were working overtime to reduce security requirements at nuclear power plants.
It's a move that could save the nuclear industry billions of dollars. Critics say it could also make nuclear plants more vulnerable to terrorists.
The security-reduction plan is the brain child of the Nuclear Management and Resources Council (NUMARC), an industry lobbying group made up of the biggest power-plant operators. In a March proposal to Congress and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), NUMARC suggested that utilities be allowed to eliminate such safety features as door locks and alarms in vital plant areas, guards at the entrances to reactor-containment buildings and security escorts for vehicles on the plants' grounds.
Scott Peters, spokesman for the U.S. Council of Energy Awareness, NUMARC's public relations arm, says the plan would cut costs without hampering security. That claim is based on the fact that all the security measures NUMARC wants to eliminate are located well within the interior of a nuclear plant. Peters says that since nuclear plants have first-rate "outsider" security--fences, guards and gates on perimeters--inside" security features can be dramatically reduced.
However, one recent attack demonstrated how quickly an outside threat can become an inside one. In February, a mentally disturbed man crashed his mother's station wagon through a security checkpoint and gate at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The man then hid in the plant's turbine building, eluding guards for four hours.
Garland Shreves--who sits on the international board of the United Plant Guard Workers union and is union chapter president at Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station--notes that "if NUMARC's security measures had been in place at TMI, the most sensitive areas of the plant would have been open to the intruder."
"Thank God he was a nut," adds Shreves, whose union opposes NUMARC. "If he had been a sane, trained terrorist, who knows what could have happened? The TMI situation shows that external barriers aren't always good enough to do the job alone."
There is evidence that Palo Verde might be vulnerable to the same kind of attack. Palo Verde security guard Robert Singley recently discovered that the plant's much-vaunted security fence--which APS officials trumpet as an insurmountable barrier--could easily be lifted out of the ground.
APS spokesman Mark Fallon, whose boss, Palo Verde chief William Conway, is a member of the NUMARC board of directors, admits APS favors the plan because "it would reduce operating costs." Fallon wouldn't discuss the plant's fence, citing an APS policy that prohibits discussion of specific security issues.
But he does say that Conway--who, as head of the nation's largest nuclear power plant, is a prime architect of industry policy--believes the NUMARC plan "doesn't decrease security at Palo Verde or compromise the safety of the general public."
Peters calls the TMI incident an anomaly, and downplays the possibility that nuclear plants should fear attacks similar to the World Trade Center bombing. "Our intelligence community tells us that nuclear facilities are not particularly good targets for terrorists," he says. "They are difficult to sabotage. I don't think terrorism is a pronounced threat to plants."
There are plenty of experts who disagree with that assessment. Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information Research Service, says nuclear plants can be very good targets, indeed.
"If you're trying to instill terror, nuclear facilities would be a good mark, don't you think? I mean, what could be more terrifying than rendering a whole area, or state, uninhabitable?" Mariotte asks.
The belief that nuclear plants may be on the "to do" lists of terrorist organizations isn't confined to antinuclear activists like Mariotte. Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at California's Rand Corporation think tank, recently testified before Congress that the TMI incident and the World Trade Center bombing should sound a "cautionary note" for nuclear plants.
Hoffman urged a reevaluation of plant security and warned that we should "shudder to think what professional terrorists, well-armed and trained in combat skills, driving something more formidable than a Plymouth station wagon, could accomplish . . . at this country's commercial nuclear power plants."
Peters dismisses such warning sirens, insisting that the only threat to nuclear plants is the loose-cannon "insider," a disturbed or angry worker with access to vital plant areas. Even that danger is reduced, he says, by the NRC's employee-testing program, which monitors workers for any sign of alcohol or drug abuse or mental instability. Testing is sufficient, NUMARC believes, to ensure that no worker will run amok.
But interestingly, that testing program is also on NUMARC's budget-busting hit list. A 50 percent reduction in the frequency of drug testing is part of the overall, cost-cutting, security-reduction proposal.
The NRC has been largely mum on the NUMARC plan, which is under review by the agency. But NRC critics sense that approval is already a done deal.
During an April conference, NRC chairman Ivan Selin commended NUMARC for pushing for the removal of inefficient safety regulations.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Shreves says the security reductions are part of a larger issue--the danger posed by an industry that is allowed to regulate itself. "Throughout history, it has been shown that industry cannot be left to police itself, to determine its own safety standards," Shreves says. "Look at miners, oil companies, chemical companies. They all screwed up the environment when left alone.
"Profit always overrides common sense."
Shreves admits his union has its own agenda. If the security reductions are approved, APS will reduce the 150-member guard staff at Palo Verde. But he insists that there is much more at stake than jobs.
"This is a frightening thing," he says. "If the nuclear industry gets its way, one of the deadliest forces known to man will be sitting virtually unguarded in your community. If that happens, God help us.