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GAO Report: NRC Capitulates to Industry on Nuclear Security

A new report from the Government Accountability Office confirms the Project On Government Oversight’s (POGO) 2005 investigative finding that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has allowed two nuclear sites with weapons-grade highly enriched uranium to operate under substandard security requirements.

The two sites are Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, Tennessee and the Nuclear Products Division of BWXT in Lynchburg, Virginia. Both facilities fabricate fuel for the nuclear Navy.

These two sites combined are authorized to store 50 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, enough for thousands of nuclear weapons. “It is unbelievable that these two sites have exactly the same extremely sensitive special nuclear material as DOE nuclear weapons sites, but are protecting against approximately half as many attackers and less lethal weapons. This should have changed long ago,” said Danielle Brian, Executive Director of POGO.

The GAO report concerns the security standards the government uses to protect such facilities, called the Design Basis Threat (DBT). GAO confirms that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a much less robust DBT than the Department of Energy for these sites, in part because the NRC appeared to establish DBT standards based on what “the nuclear industry considered feasible to defend against rather than on an assessment of the terrorist threat itself.”

The Postulated Threat to U.S. Nuclear Weapon Facilities and Other Selected Strategic Facilities (Postulated Threat) developed by the U.S. intelligence community is the document on which the government bases its security operations. Yet, according to the report, the “NRC believes that the Postulated Threat does not apply to commercial nuclear facilities such as its licensees.”

POGO’s 2005 report “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Homeland Security Opportunities,” first exposed that the NRC was allowing the two commercial facilities with lower security standards. The classified 40-page version of the GAO report was issued in February 2007 and it took the NRC and DOE six months to agree on releasing the four- page unclassified report.

The GAO report was commissioned by then-House National Security Subcommittee Chairman Christopher Shays who conducted a series of ground-breaking oversight hearings on security of nuclear facilities in the last session of Congress.

Nuclear Security: DOE and NRC Have Different Security Requirements for Protecting Weapons-Grade Material from Terrorist Attacks, GAO Report, September 11, 2007.