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NRC Ignores Threat of Air Attack on Nuclear Plants

Following the 9/11 tragedy, the NRC initiated what it termed a "top to bottom" review of nuclear power reactor security. As their review progressed, the NRC issued orders and advisories requiring plant owners to implement security upgrades and changes. On January 29, 2007, the NRC's Commissioners voted 5-0 to revise regulations to formally codify all the orders and advisories.

Curiously, the revisions to the regulations resulting from a "top to bottom" review prompted by a tragedy in which terrorists hijacked commercial aircraft and deliberately crashed them into buildings explicitly assume that aircraft will not be used in future attacks on nuclear power plants. The NRC Chairman issued a short statement about the revised regulations and the aircraft omission which began with these two sentences:

"Nuclear power plants are inherently robust structures that our studies show provide adequate protection in a hypothetical attack by an airplane. The NRC has also taken actions that require nuclear plant operators to be able to manage large fires or explosions—no matter what caused them."

Both sentences strain credibility. Study after study conducted by the NRC and for the NRC consistently concluded that reactor meltdowns can occur if aircraft hit nuclear power plants, but consistently accepted that outcome on the low probability that aircraft would accidentally hit a nuclear plant. Clearly, that acceptability is undermined when terrorists intentionally target nuclear plant sites with hijacked aircraft.

The Chairman's second sentence is equally inconsistent with the facts. NRC inspection after NRC inspection identify that nuclear power plants are not in compliance with pre-9/11 fire regulations. The NRC's response to such findings has been to waive sanctions for the violations and to give plant owners indefinite periods of time to restore compliance. In other words, the NRC's actions (and inactions) have left nuclear power plants vulnerable to pre-9/11 fire hazards—hazards only increased by the post-9/11 threat.

UCS chronicled the many studies and actions that clearly challenge the veracity of the NRC Chairman's statements in an 11-page brief titled "The NRC's Revised Security Regulations."

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