Video: NBC special: Power plant safety

By Lisa Myers Senior investigative correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/8/2004 8:08:50 PM ET 2004-09-09T00:08:50

Since drawings of U.S. nuclear power plants were found in al-Qaida caves in Afghanistan, the nuclear power industry says it has spent $1 billion beefing up security. That includes more frequent and more realistic mock-terrorist attacks to test the ability of plant guards.

That's an improvement, critics say, but for one key fact: the company hired to run the security tests — Wackenhut Corporation — also is providing security at half the plants. Critics charge Wackenhut has a vested financial interest in making plant security look good.

"You have the same company that's providing security, testing whether that security is good enough," says Danielle Brian from the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). "I think, on its face, it's ridiculous."

Wackenhut's own security record raises questions too. Six Wackenhut guards were removed from a Florida plant this spring after faking foot patrols.  Two were found asleep, with the plant gate open, in New Jersey.  Wackenhut guards were also caught cheating before a mock terror drill at a government nuclear facility.

But both Wackenhut and a spokesman for the nuclear power industry say the problems are overstated and that the federal government sets up the tests and will grade them.

"I challenge anybody to come up really with a better training, with a better adversary force than we have put together using Wackenhut," says Stephen Floyd of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).

Still, many insist the federal government should take over responsibility for running rigorous tests and choose the assault team.

"You have to have real tests that are performed by totally dispassionate and trained people," says POGO's Danielle Brian.

It's a seemingly easy fix, but it's opposed by the nuclear industry.  

"I think it's actually a very remote likelihood that terrorists would attack a nuclear power plant," says the NEI's Floyd.

That, even though 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta wanted to target a nuclear plant in the attacks three years ago.  Then, al-Qaida leaders chose more symbolic targets. But what about next time?

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