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NRC weakens safety measures at nuclear power plants

A Meltdown in Nuclear Security  A commando raid on a nuclear power plant seems the stuff of Hollywood. So why are nuclear security experts so worried? U.S. News, By Alan Neuhauser Staff Writer, Sept. 20, 2019 IT RANKS AMONG THE worst-case scenarios for a nuclear power plant: an all-out assault or stealth infiltration by well-trained, heavily armed attackers bent on triggering a nuclear blast, sparking a nuclear meltdown or stealing radioactive material.

For nearly two decades, the nation’s nuclear power plants have been required by federal law to prepare for such a nightmare: At every commercial nuclear plant, every three years, security guards take on a simulated attack by hired commandos in so-called “force-on-force” drills. And every year, at least one U.S. nuclear plant flunks the simulation, the “attackers” damaging a reactor core and potentially triggering a fake Chernobyl – a failure rate of 5 percent.

In spite of that track record, public documents and testimony show that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency responsible for ensuring the safety and security of the nation’s fleet of commercial nuclear reactors, is now steadily rolling back the standards meant to prevent the doomsday scenario the drills are designed to simulate.

Under pressure from a cash-strapped nuclear energy industry increasingly eager to slash costs, the commission in a little-noticed vote in October 2018 halved the number of force-on-force exercises conducted at each plant every cycle. Four months later, it announced it would overhaul how the exercises are evaluated to ensure that no plant would ever receive more than the mildest rebuke from regulators – even when the commandos set off a simulated nuclear disaster that, if real, would render vast swaths of the U.S. uninhabitable.

Later this year, the NRC is expected to greenlight a proposal that will allow nuclear plants – which currently must be able to fend off an attack alone – to instead begin depending on local and state law enforcement, whose training, equipment and response times may leave them ill-prepared to respond to a military-grade assault.

The moves have inflamed open dissent within the commission, which has been riven in recent years by internecine conflict between Republican and Democratic commissioners…….

Nuclear security experts, consultants, law enforcement veterans and former NRC commissioners – several of whom spoke with U.S. News on condition of anonymity in order to address the issue candidly – are nothing short of alarmed. They openly question whether top regulators at the NRC, ceaselessly lobbied by an industry strapped for cash, have fallen prey to valuing quarterly earnings, lucrative contracts and potential plum job opportunities over day-to-day security.

A longtime nuclear security expert minced no words about the potential consequences:   “I know how easy it is to cause a Fukushima-scale meltdown, radiation release or worse. And the timelines are very short. You don’t have much room to maneuver if you misjudge what the threat is,” says Ed Lyman, senior scientist in the global security program and acting director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “You can’t afford to be wrong once.”

‘No One Likes Security’

Force-on-force exercises, a mix of live-action role playing and military-grade laser tag, are not unique to the nuclear sector – they’re used to test military bases, and police departments engage in a version of them in active-shooter drills. For obvious reasons, they remain cloaked in secrecy.

Some details about the nuclear drills, though, are publicly available: The attacking force is expected to deploy a range of tactics, from disabling alarm systems to using automatic weapons and silencers, attacking one or multiple entry points, employing land and water vehicles, and using “incapacitating agents” and explosives. The types of attacks are explicitly outlined in NRC regulations…….

The industry has long lobbied to either eliminate the drills or, more recently, conduct them internally, with regulators relegated to the role of passive observer rather than planning and directing each exercise.

“The industry is under economic strain, so they’re looking to cut wherever they possibly can, and this is one place that they’ve been harping on for a long time to cut,” a former NRC chairman says……

Such an assault may seem the stuff of Hollywood. But intelligence assessments show that despite a spate of so-called “lone wolf” incidents in the U.S. and overseas, groups like al-Qaida and domestic terrorists in the U.S. remain as determined as ever to launch spectacular attacks. U.S. nuclear plants are at the top of the target list, experts say. …..

As recently as 2016, authorities in Belgium warned that Islamic State group operatives were planning to attack nuclear plants. The gunman who opened fire that year at a gay nightclub in Orlando worked for a contractor as a security guard at a nuclear plant in the U.S. Intelligence officials have fingered Russia in repeated cyberattacks on nuclear power plants, which could be used in conjunction with an armed infiltration.

But serious breaches have occurred even without the help of rogue insiders, heavy weaponry or foreign adversaries. With just a pair of bolt-cutters, a nun and a pair of pacifist activists in 2012 broke into a nuclear weapons complex on federal land that supposedly had higher security standards than civilian nuclear energy sites. They did little more than spray paint protest slogans, but some 30 minutes passed before guards realized a breach had occurred. Yet despite sparking a flurry of headlines and investigations, the incident prompted a collective shrug within the civilian nuclear sector, surprising security experts and contractors…….

Commissioner Baran, the lone NRC dissenting vote, later spoke out at a Senate committee hearing in April.

“We should not allow licensees to inspect themselves,” he testified. “Doing so would be fundamentally inconsistent with our role as an independent nuclear safety regulator.”  Writing in a comment accompanying his vote opposing the change, he insisted that “efficiency” – or, put more bluntly, companies’ bottom lines – appeared to be the only consideration that mattered to regulators.

“Going from two NRC-conducted FOF exercises to one would provide no security benefits,” Baran wrote. Rather, one of the only benefits “would be to reduce the costs of conducting the exercises.”……

Nuclear power plant owners had long lobbied to weaken the evaluation process, former NRC commissioners say. ……..

September 20, 2019 - Posted by | safety, USA

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