Nuclear Plant Security Requires Guards at Entrances

By Scott D. Portzline


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will vote against adopting a requirement for guards at nuclear power plant entrances some time before spring 2009. 

The vast majority of citizens, legislators and government officials agree with Three Mile Island Alert’s petition for rulemaking to add such a rule.


The NRC ignored the “visual deterrent” argument in its written analysis despite guidelines and promises to address each line of reasoning. Many security improvements have been made in recent years, however, this deficit and others remain uncorrected.


Recently, a Florida nuclear plant spent more than $6 million dealing with a disgruntled worker who drilled a small hole in reactor piping. He had a history of criminal charges and “red flags” on his psychological tests, yet the man was permitted to work in sensitive areas. 


Long ago we warned the NRC that its “fitness for duty” regulations were far too lenient. How did we know? A Three Mile Island (TMI) employee was arrested for breaking into a woman’s home and committing perverted sexual acts. Despite a court order for psychological counseling and electronic ankle bracelet monitoring, this misfit was allowed to continue working within the plant.


The new cyber security regulations will not require operators to report computer troubles at the time which they arise. We reasoned that timely reporting is needed so that the NRC is able to assess if a concerted cyber attack is occurring and then warn other plants. Once again, the NRC ignored our rationale in its analysis. 


Every Homeland Security drill has shown that telephone service is not reliable during an emergency. The NRC rejected our proposal for requiring satellite phones as a solution. Their bogus argument was that this rule would require “updating every time a new technology becomes available.”


The U.S. General Accounting Office cites ongoing security problems, most notably, cheating during “force on force” drills, and insufficiencies in the “design basis threat,” which refers to the characteristics and tactics of hypothetical attackers. The NRC removed a number of weapons commonly used by terrorists from its list of attributes to defend against. They also reduced the size of the postulated vehicle bomb to match the size vehicle the industry had proposed. 


The NRC’s lenient regulatory style for overseeing security is flawed. Licensees are given too much wiggle room whereby, on paper, security plans become overly optimistic and allow certain scenarios to be brushed under the rug. The NRC must adopt a “directive” regulatory style rather than its current “performance-based” style. This would allow for specific mandates at each site instead of a regulator who surrendered to industry pressure for generic solutions. The NRC has repeatedly stated that it does not want to be prescriptive. 


The NRC has put into place many of the security measures which we have suggested over the last 15 years. For instance, guard towers, layers of razor wire, greater setback distances to protect against truck bombs, and additional guards armed with better defensive weapons are all now in place at TMI.


We know that our current suggestions are also on firm ground. Regrettably, on more than 40 occasions the NRC has shamefully and deliberately mishandled our proposed rule for entrance guards until they found a way to make it vanish from their proceedings. We can't let them get away with that. 


Scott D. Portzline is Security Consultant to Three Mile Island Alert.