Nightly News   |  August 15, 2013

Study: Terrorists could easily target nuclear plants

A dozen years post-9/11, one study reveals just how vulnerable the nation’s nuclear reactors are to terrorists’ acts. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

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>>> if you're one of millions who live near a nuclear power plant , you'll want to hear this. there is renewed concern tonight about how prepared those nuclear facilities might be in the case of a terrorist attack . a report commissioned by the pentagon suggests that the nation's nuclear reactors remain vulnerable to a 9/11-style attack, especially in some of the country's biggest population centers. our report tonight from nbc's tom costello.

>> reporter: nearly 12 years after 9/11, researchers say the nation's 100 nuclear reactors are still underprotected and vulnerable to attack from air, land or sea.

>> these civilian nuclear facilities in the united states are not required to protect against a threat that's anywhere close to what occurred on 9/11.

>> reporter: experts believe some of the 9/11 terrorists considered attacking a nuclear reactor . commissioned by the pentagon, today's report suggests terrorists could try to attack or sabotage a nuclear facility , perhaps using a hijacked plane to cause a meltdown or steal bomb-grade uranium to built a device. the former director says it's a serious warning but it would be far more difficult to hiare jack a plane and nuclear reactors are far more secure.

>> i think overall the security of the sites is relatively good. but for the very high-end terror threats there's no doubt that protections could be increased.

>> air puffers on.

>> reporter: two years ago, we visited the waterford three nuclear plant on the mississippi river in louisiana. barbed wire fencing, roaming s.w.a.t. teams, double-sealed doors and hardened concrete protect the nuclear core and the pool that holds spent fuel rods. but because the nation's plants are at least 30 years old, often with communities nearby, experts say hardening them to 20 century standards would be both costly and challenging. nationwide, 65 of 100 working reactors sit within close proximity to population centers, one in three americans lives within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor , including new york, boston, philly, charlotte, chicago, miami, baton rouge , and san diego . 50 miles is considered the potential contamination zone. today the nuclear regulatory commission insisted it has strengthened security requirements for commercial nuclear power plants and remains confident that these important facilities are adequately protected. while reactors may remain a target, any new security requirements are now highly unlikely. tom costello, nbc news, washington.