Nuclear Power Plant Security: Voices From Inside the Fences

Executive Summary

Security guards at only one out of four nuclear power plants are confident their plant could defeat a terrorist attack, according to interviews conducted for this report by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). The guards say morale is very low and that they are under-equipped, under-manned, and underpaid.

More than 20 security guards protecting 24 nuclear reactors (located at 13 plants) were interviewed during POGO's investigation into nuclear plant security. The guards' major concerns:

Under-manned: Prior to 9/11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) required only five to ten security guards on duty per nuclear reactor. Since then, the NRC has ordered the utilities to minimally increase the guard force. But more than half the guards POGO interviewed say their plants are relying on increased overtime of the existing guard force -- up to six consecutive days of 12-hour shifts -- rather than hiring more guards. Guards raised serious concerns about fatigue. While a few guards said their plants have increased the guard force -- one plant has tripled the number of guards -- most interviewed believe that they are still below adequate levels to defeat a real terrorist attack. According to one guard, "If an attack took place, most of the guards would run like hell."

Under-trained: Nuclear industry executives have repeatedly claimed that guards receive 270 hours of training before being posted; 90 hours per year to re-qualify with their weapons; and 30 hours per year in antiterrorist tactical exercises. None of these claims appear to be true. Most guards interviewed train with their weapons only once per year for two to three hours during their annual weapons qualification. Most also have had no training or practice in shooting at a moving target. "Tabletop" exercises are so rudimentary that utilities use red and blue colored clothes pins to depict locations and tactics of guards and terrorists.

Under-equipped: Many of the guards believe they are not equipped with adequate weaponry. The power and range of weapons provided to many of the guards is vastly inferior to the weapons known to be used by terrorists, due in part to restrictive state laws. According to one guard, terrorists will come armed with automatic weapons, sniper rifles, and grenades and the guard force "would be seriously outgunned, and won't have a chance."

Underpaid: Low wages and inadequate health, disability and other benefits are causing turnover in the guard force at some plants as high as 70-100% over the 3½year life of a labor contract. At six nuclear facilities identified by POGO, security guards were being paid $1 to $4 less per hour than custodians or janitors. Guards also often earn less than workers in their area who face substantially less risk such as funeral attendants, manicurists, and aerobic instructors.

Unsure: Nearly all of the guards interviewed raised concerns about the lack of guidance on the use of deadly force. Guards are currently restricted from using deadly force unless an intruder is wielding a weapon or threatening the life of an individual. If a suicidal terrorist with a backpack (possibly containing explosives) jumped the fence and headed straight for a spent fuel pool or reactor, the guard could only observe and report the event. One guard summed up the problem stating: "If you pull the trigger, you're on your own and you'll need a good lawyer."

Since 9/11, the NRC has done little to bolster security at the power plants:

  • The NRC requires utilities simply to delay attackers until outside help arrives from local sheriff departments, state police, or the FBI. However, the NRC is only just recognizing the chasm between how long plant security can hold off an attack and when outside responders could arrive. Tabletop exercises begun by NRC in July, 2002, indicate that it would take one to two hours for outside responders to arrive with SWAT capability. NRC's performance tests have shown that successful terrorist attacks are over in between three to ten minutes.
  • The NRC has failed to toughen security regulations. Current regulations reportedly only require nuclear plants to be prepared for an attack by three terrorists and one insider -- a clearly inadequate scenario in light of the coordinated attack by 19 terrorists on 9/11. Recommended improvements have languished at the Commission.
  • The NRC issued an order in February, 2002, that required utilities to make incremental upgrades in security by August, 2002. Those upgrades include minimal increases in the guard force, requirements that guards carry their primary weapons while on patrol (i.e. shotgun or rifle), and the movement of truck bomb barriers farther from reactor target sets.
  • The NRC has not conducted force-on-force performance tests since 9/11. The NRC claims this is due to its current high-alert status. However, both the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, which are also at high-alert status, have continued to test the performance of security over the past year. Prior to 9/11, power plants failed the mock force-on-force tests almost half the time according to closed-door Congressional testimony by NRC officials. POGO found that even those tests are seriously dumbed-down.

In addition to security guards, POGO also interviewed Army and Navy Special Forces personnel who conduct force-on-force tests, current and former NRC and other officials, a National Guard commander, and contractors. POGO's report is based on information and documents gathered from these sources. POGO briefed officials at the NRC on its findings.

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