nuclear plant security


In the post 9/11 era, national security has become number one priority to many in order to prevent another disaster. But what does the US need to secure within in its borders? One important but usually overlooked potential weakness are the nuclear power plants sprinkled around the country. Below is a short summary of the who, what, where, when, why and how of nuclear power plants and their security.

Nuclear power plant stats

  • We have 104 nuclear power plants, mostly east of the the Mississippi river. (NRC)

  • They generate 20% of the nations' electrical needs (NRC)

  • We also have about 36 research and test reactors generally located at universities (NRC)

See the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's map of where power plants are located.

Who is responsible for overseeing the security of nuclear power plants?

  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

what it does (NRC)

  • Develop regulations and guidance for plants

  • Issue licenses and certifications for nuclear plants

  • Oversee operations and facilities to make sure they are up to standard

  • Evaluate operational experience

  • Conduct research, hold hearings and obtain independent reviews about their regulatory decisions.

See the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's diagram on what they do.


  • Proposed 2007 budget: $ 777 million (NRC)

    • Most funds come from license fees (it is expected that around $628 million will come from license fees in '07)

  • Money from the government for the budget:

    • Proposed 2007: $149 million

    • 2006: $117 million

    • 2005: $129 million

  • Where does it go?

    • Proposed 2007:

      • Salaries and Benefits: $446 million

      • Contract Support: $303 million

      • Travel: $19 million

      • Office of the Inspector General: $8 million

Some Nuclear Regulatory Commission safety requirements:

(CRS), (NRC)

  • The area around the plant must be divided into three sections with access becoming more limited as you get closer to the nuclear plant.:

    • a buffer region, no homes can be within this area.

    • a protected area, restricted to some plant employees and monitored visitors. Background checks are used.

    • a vital area, restricted even more with extra barriers and checks including card or guard monitored access.

  • There is also a material access area which is special nuclear material is stored.

    • No one is ever allowed to be alone in this area

    • Card secured or guard monitored access with detection systems.

  • Security must also include physical barriers and a trained security force. Pre 9/11 these forces were a mix of local pd and private forces. Post 9/11 the NRC helped develop the Composite Adversary Force (CAF). More uniform, this force is privately run by a company called Wakenhut that runs security for most nuclear facilities. (NRC)

  • Design Basis Threat (DBT). Plan and area to defend against the largest possible threat (terrorist attack). The DBT is required by law to be defended by a private security force. (NRC)

  • "Force on Force" exercises. Regular exercises to test a a security force's ability to defend the Design Basis Threat area (DBT) It must be tested at least once every three years. Pre 9/11 these test forces were a mix of local pd, facility securty personnel and private forces. Post 9/11 the NRC helped develop the Composite Adversary Force (CAF) to test nuclear facility forces. More uniofrm, this force is privately run by a company called Wakenhut that also runs security for most nuclear facilities in the US While this company runs the forces it does not design the actual tests, requirements, standards etc... that facilities must pass. (NRC)The CAF force has been used for all FOF exercises since October 2004. (NRC)

*Some critics of the the NRC and it regulations worry about, among a number of things, the number of forces at nuclear plants, the size of the Design Basis Threat area and too much reliance on a local law enforcement in an emergency.

How we are potentially vulnerable to a terrorist attack:

  • Nuclear Meltdown- Even if the reactors were turned off in the event of an attack the steel container that holds the nuclear material might not withstand the heat of the nuclear material and as a result nuclear material would be released.

  • Air Attack- Nuclear power plants were built to withstand all sorts of natural disasters like earthquakes but many worry about whether they could withstand a 9/11 style attack involving planes carry loads of fuel.

  • Spent Fuel Storage Fires-
    Currently, fuel that is no longer useful is either kept in pools of water or in dry casks. There are some worries that if water is drained from the pools that there will be massive fires or that terrorists could break through the casks which would release radioactive material into the air.

Good links

  • Congressional Research Service's report on nuclear power plants and terrorist attack vulnerability

  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission's website

  • National Nuclear Security Administration website

  • GAO

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