The government will no longer reveal security gaps discovered at nuclear power plants, hoping to prevent terrorists from using the information, regulators said Wednesday.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced the change in policy during its first public meeting on power plant safety since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Until now, the NRC has provided regular public updates on vulnerabilities its inspectors found at the country’s 103 nuclear power reactors, such as broken fences or weaknesses in training programs.
“We need to blacken some of our processes so that our adversaries won’t have that information,” said Roy Zimmerman, director of the commission’s Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response, which was created after the attacks.
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said commissioners voted to take the step March 29 but kept it quiet as agency staff worked to implement the plan. The vote itself was revealed Wednesday and had nothing to do with this week’s warnings that terrorists had surveyed U.S. financial institutions, Burnell said.
“We deliberated for many months on finding the balance between the NRC’s commitment to openness and the concern that sensitive information might be misused by those who wish us harm,” commission Chairman Nils Diaz said in a written statement.
Numerous lapses uncovered
Protection at the nation’s nuclear power reactors — located at 64 sites in 31 states — has been ratcheted up since the Sept. 11 attacks. The commission has long been guarded about revealing specifics of the security efforts.
But that has not stopped accusations of inadequate guard training and other security lapses.
Congressional investigations have found problems such as a guard’s falling asleep on the job and lost keys to sensitive areas. Reports from the Energy Department’s inspector general noted other problems, such as guards’ being warned of security exercises and inconsistent training from site to site.
Nuclear activists have expressed concern about the adequacy of guard training, fire protection, the security of pools containing spent nuclear fuel, and planning for different kinds of attacks.
“The vulnerabilities at a lot of the reactors in this country have not been addressed,” said Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace. “Here we are nearly three years from the attacks, and I don’t see anything they’ve done except extending the perimeters of these facilities.”
In the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, operators at the nation’s nuclear power plants posted more guards, added security patrols and reduced access to the installations’ most sensitive areas.
Military planes at nearby bases stood ready to intercept any suspicious aircraft, the Coast Guard patrolled the Great Lakes near power plants to keep ships away, and many facilities enlisted the help of National Guard troops.
Some critics have said nothing short of military occupation of the plants would provide adequate safety. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in May that the possibility of creating a federal police force to guard nuclear plants was being seriously discussed.
Paul Gunter, a nuclear expert at the watchdog group Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said he was worried that plants since 1992 had been allowed to delay implementation of fire protection equipment for control room cables.
“Our major concern is that the NRC really has to stop protecting the nuclear power industry from the cost of security and really start protecting it from the clear and present danger of terrorism,” Gunter said.