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RADIOLOGICAL THREATS: Terrorist Event at Power Plant

"The events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent discovery and the discovery of commercial nuclear power plants on a list of possible terrorist targets have focused considerable attention on the plants' capabilities to defend against a terrorist attack."1

U.S. nuclear power plants, as well as others around the world, are vulnerable to a World Trade Center type of air attack or a ground attack. Either type of event could result in a subsequent release of radiation due to inadequate design and inadequate security.

Inadequate Design

  • Nuclear power plants were never designed to withstand an attack by a large airliner loaded with fuel. Until 2014, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had refused to consider requiring measures to protect nuclear plants from such attacks,2 despite the fact that nuclear power plants were on al-Qaeda planner Khalid Sheik Mohamed’s original target 9/11 target list.3
  • Even now, the latest (2015) "Design Basis Threat"4 does not require EXISTING power plants to repel attacks by adversaries with the capabilities commensurate with those of the September 11 terrorists. Protection from such an attack is only required for NEW plants.5

Inadequate Security

  • Security at nuclear power plants is provided by private security guards. They are not federal employees. Consequently, specific hiring & training standards are not mandated by the NRC. The sub-standard level of dedication and supervision of the Wackenhut Guards at one plant was documented in 2007, when several nuclear power plant guards at the Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plant were photographed asleep several times throughout the guards’ shift by a fellow guard. The videos were subsequently provided to a local TV station by the guard.6 The TV station subsequently provided the video to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the plant’s owners, Excelon.
  • During the period 1991 to 1998, 57 nuclear power plants underwent "Force-on-Force" exercises.7 Over half (27) revealed significant weaknesses indicating, "That a real attack would have put the nuclear reactor in jeopardy with the potential for core damage & radiological release."8 Six of eleven similar tests conducted in 2000 and 2001 resulted in similar results. The mock attackers disabled enough equipment to cause reactor damage.9
  • Force-on-Force exercises were suspended from 2001 to 2004. But in September of 2004, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the industry for allowing the same company (Wackenhut) that provides security at about half the nation’s reactors to provide the adversary force. GAO noted that Wackenhut had been found cheating on previous Force-on-Force exercises by the Department of Energy.10
  • In 2006, these force-on-force exercises were evaluated again by the GAO to determine whether the changes mandated by the 2004 Design Basis Threat had been implemented. The GAO noted that many improvements had been made at four plants that were visited, but because of the problems that remain, the GAO could not conclude, "that all nuclear power plants sites are capable of defending against the revised DBT." The GAO observed three exercise scenarios and in all three, the attackers made it to the protected area. Furthermore, attackers made it to the targets in two of the scenarios.11
  • During calendar year 2012, NRC conducted 23 force-on-force (FOF) inspections at 22 commercial nuclear plants and one fuel cycle facility. Eleven of those inspections found performance deficiencies: 19 with low significance (green findings), one "greater than green" finding, and three severity level IV (least serious) violations. One exercise resulted in the simulated destruction of or damage to a complete “target set” of vital plant components that were under mock attack.12


  1. Government Accountability Office. Nuclear Regulatory Commission: "Preliminary Observations of Efforts to Improve Security at Nuclear Power Plants." Statement of Jim Wells, Director, Natural Resources and Environment, to the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, House Committee on Government reform, September 14, 2004, p.14.
  2. Lyman, Edwin Dr., "Nuclear Plant Protection and the Homeland Security Mandate," July 31, 2003.
  3. 9/11 Commission Report, Chapter 5, page 154.
  4. "Design Basis Threat": The NRC defined characteristics of an adversary force from which a power plant must be able to defend itself.
  5. Lyman, Op. Cit.
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?V=x2o0Wh8dVZY
  7. "Force-on-Force" exercise: A mock adversary force from outside the plant attempts to penetrate the plant's vital area and damage or destroy key safety components. Advance notice is given of the day of the exercise, but not the time. Each plant is required to conduct exercises only once every three years.
  8. David N. Orrick, Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Differing Professional Opinion, February 3, 1999, as quoted in: Grunwald, Michael & Peter Behr, “Are Nuclear Plants Secure?”, Washington Post, November 3, 2001, pg. A01. (Note: Document no longer available on-line)
  9. Terrance Reis, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Physical Security Significance Determination Process," August 30, 2001, as quoted and referenced on the Union of Concerned Scientists webpage: "Nuclear Reactor Security."
  10. Government Accountability Office. "Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Preliminary Observations of Efforts to Improve Security at Nuclear Power Plants." Statement of Jim Wells, Director, Natural Resources and Environment, to the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations, House Committee on Government reform, September 14, 2004.
  11. Government Accountability Office, "Nuclear Power: Plants Have Upgraded Security, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Needs to Improve Its Process for Revising the Design Basis Threat," GAO Report-06-555T, April 4, 2006. http://gao.gov/assets/120/113297.html
  12. Congressional Research Service, "Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerabilities," CRS Report for Congress, 7-5700, January 3, 2014, pg. 9.