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Project on Government Oversight




East Coast Nuclear Power Plant Guards Raise Security Concerns

April 25, 2002 


The Project on Government Oversight recently interviewed several guards who work at an East Coast nuclear power plant. The guards – each of whom has worked at the plant for seven to 15 years – asked that neither they nor their power plant be identified out of fear of reprisal from their employer.

The guards, who spoke to POGO in mid-April, said they have been told that their plant is one of the most secure nuclear power plants in the nation. But if that’s true, they are alarmed and said the country should be alarmed. The guards said they have the following concerns about the adequacy of security at the plant:

Inadequate Number of Guards, Equipment, and Training

  • The number of guards required at their plant – and they suspect all of the country’s nuclear power plants – is inadequate to protect the plant from terrorists. National Guardsmen were posted outside their plant after Sept. 11 but anti-terrorist training has not been stepped-up, otherwise.

  • The number of armed guards at their plant was actually reduced by 20 percent several years ago after a successful test of the plant’s armed response capability by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The test was conducted by the NRC’s Operational Safeguards Response Evaluation (OSRE) program. The number of guards has ramped up since Sept. 11 but is still insufficient.

  • The number of vehicles provided to the guards to conduct patrols is inadequate.

  • Contrary to the images in full-page advertisements that have been running recently in Washington D.C., the guards at their plant are equipped with 9-millimeter pistols. The ads, sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power trade group, lead Congress and the public to believe the guards at nuclear power plants are roaming the plants equipped with automatic or semi-automatic weapons and flack jackets. (In fact, only two-thirds of all nuclear power plants are even equipped with semiautomatic weapons and only one power plant in the country requires guards to wear flack jackets.)

  • Their utility falsely claims that armed guards are at its security center at all times but those guards often are used by the utility for many other functions, such as escorting trucks and visitors, and are not always in a posture to respond to a threat or attack. Sometimes these other duties result in the perimeter guard shacks being left unmanned.

  • To give the impression that the plant is better protected than it is, their utility falsely claims some of its employees other than guards are armed. These employees have had firearms training but have no immediate access to firearms.

  • Even though the Nuclear Energy Institute’s ads claim that the guards at nuclear power plants are “well-compensated,” the guards claim that they are the lowest paid workers at their plant, ranking below even forklift operators, janitors and storeroom employees who hand out equipment. Considering the ultimate sacrifice they are asked to make, namely their lives in the event of an attack, the guards believe they should be given more resources for training, equipment and salaries.

Unrealistic Testing

  • The mock attack OSRE tests staged by the NRC are unrealistic. 

  • The utilities are notified months in advance – often as many as six to 10 months – that an OSRE test will be conducted.

  • The NRC requires OSRE tests only once every eight years. This is clearly inadequate to ensure security and compliance. The guards have not been notified any more OSRE tests are planned in the near future at their plant – even in light of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

  • The utilities are allowed to choose what kind of scenario they want conducted during the OSRE tests and the target of the attack. They practice repeatedly for that particular scenario, often with the help of consultants hired to train the guards for that particular kind of attack.

  • Their utility picks its best guards for its OSRE tests, meaning the guards who participate in the tests are not representative of the actual guard force. Plus, guards are given overtime to prepare for and engage in the mock tests. They are not normally given so much overtime, making the exercise all the more contrived because more guards are available during testing periods than on typical days.

  • An OSRE test done a few years ago at the guards’ plant did not equip the mock terrorists with 50-caliber armored piercing incendiary (API) sniper fire though any relatively sophisticated terrorist group would most likely use these rifles. Several nuclear power plants place guards in “hardened” shacks on the plant’s grounds that are highly vulnerable to 50-caliber API sniper fire.

  • In mock attacks, the NRC’s Design Basis Threat (DBT) requires only that a very small band of intruders with the help of a plant employee, known as an “insider,” attack the plant. This requirement, which was unrealistic before Sept. 11, is even more unrealistic now. However, the utilities are content to limit the tests to a very small group of intruders – and no “insider” – because they don’t want to expose the vulnerabilities of their plants, fearing it would be “bad for morale.”

  • The OSRE tests assume the guards will prevent terrorists from entering the reactor or spent fuel pond buildings and therefore do not even test any scenarios in which they are able to gain access to these sensitive areas. If terrorists do get inside these buildings, the guard force has inadequate manpower to protect them.

  • If terrorists get inside a control room, the guards’ utility – like most utilities – depends on state and local police and sometimes federal law enforcement officials to respond, which can take hours. At their plant, it could take up to two hours. However, generally, these battles would be over in a matter of minutes.

  • The OSRE tests done at their plant do not consider the possibility that terrorists would use diversionary attacks – such as placing remote control explosive devices at one location and attacking another. If that happened, the guards would most likely be told to leave their posts and react to the diversion.

Other Concerns

  • Utilities like to crow that they are “in compliance,” but even when nuclear power plants are technically in compliance with federal regulations, they often would not be able to guard against terrorist attacks. “Being in compliance doesn’t mean that the plant could stop someone from breaking in,” one longtime guard said.

  • Security is focused on the reactors while not enough attention is paid to the vulnerability of the spent fuel pools. At their plant, the spent fuel pools are in concrete block structures outside the containment buildings. The guards believe that it would take a group of terrorists only about 60 seconds to reach the highly dangerous spent fuel pools from the security fences.

  • The utility does not assume the worst case scenario through vulnerability assessments or use computer simulated Joint Tactical Simulations (JTS) to determine the best defensive tactics. Both are used extensively by the military and the federal Department of Energy.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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