by Lowman S. Henry | November 24, 2003

Nuclear power plant security still lacking

There is no doubt that America has made great strides in homeland security since the attacks of September 11, 2001. The formation of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security has been much more than a name change on the door. There has been real and significant improvement in both vigilance and preparedness.

But, one area where progress has been slow and inadequate is at our nation’s nuclear power plants.

Two recent headlines underscored the problem. One, dealt with a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) order to close waterways around nuclear power plants, the other a report on drug use by plant workers. Both are cause for concern.

It is incomprehensible that the NRC could take over two years to come to the conclusion that waterways around nuclear power plants should be closed to boat traffic. The fact such waterways were not already closed to such traffic is a stunning indictment of the NRC’s lack of security preparedness.

This is a particular problem in Pennsylvania as the notorious Three Mile Island nuclear plant is, as the name might suggest, surrounded by water. Last summer a couple of fishermen boated down the Susquehanna River, landed on the island, and fished for several hours before their presence was noticed. Good thing they weren’t terrorists.

It is laudable the NRC has moved to ban boat traffic around such facilities, although questions still remain about the ability of plant security to repel any violators bent on committing a terrorist act.

In the wake of the 2001 attack on America, the Schweiker Administration reluctantly posted National Guard troops at TMI and other nuclear power plants throughout Pennsylvania. The continued posting of such troops has been an on-again, off-again thing under Governor Ed Rendell.

Industry officials freely admit that their security forces are neither trained nor equipped to repel a military-style terrorist attack. In the case of TMI, located adjacent to Harrisburg International Airport and just miles downstream from the Capitol City Airport, the need for National Guard protection – indeed the need for U.S. military protection would seem to be a no-brainer. But both state and federal officials have been slow to react, and their response has been woefully inadequate.

The other headline of note reported that 150 workers and short-term contactors at TMI and the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in York County had tested positive for drug use (mostly marijuana and cocaine) during a recent study conducted by the NRC.

While industry officials dispute these numbers, the report is not reassuring. Not only are our nuclear power plants inadequately guarded against external assault, we have a real problem with employees and contractors being spaced out on drugs. This while running some of the most dangerous and sensitive power generation facilities in the nation.

To be fair, the operators of nuclear power plants have been working hard upgrading security. However, security is all they can provide – they cannot deploy the military-level of protection needed to truly fortify these facilities against terrorist assault.

State Representative Michael Veon of Beaver County introduced legislation two years ago to require the permanent posting of Pennsylvania National Guard troops at the state’s nuclear power plants. Despite the urgent need for such protection, that legislation has languished in the legislature.

While much progress has been made in the area of homeland security, there are still serious issues relating to the nation’s nuclear power plants that have not yet been addressed. It’s been two years since America’s September 11th wake-up call. The time has come for both state and federal officials to stop hitting the snooze button and deal with the problem.