Testimony on Nuclear Plant Security before the Senate Committee on Appropriations

By David Lochbaum of UCS

 

Good afternoon Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. My name is David Lochbaum. I am the nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

 

After the September 11th attacks, many Americans worried about the nuclear plants in their backyards. Unfortunately, inactions by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission fanned the flames of fear when their responsible actions may have suppressed them. They could have continued security tests to demonstrate adequate preparedness. Instead, they cancelled all the tests. They could have communicated with the public about nuclear plant security. Instead they chose silence. They could have pointed to the emergency plans that protect the public in event of a nuclear plant disaster. Instead, they chose to hide these plans.

 

As a direct result, state and local authorities shouldered more of the burden. The NRC itself has been hampered by its policy mistakes. NRC staffers repeatedly complain that they spend too much time responding to questions from members of Congress. The agency apparently hasn't realized that these questions represent an appetite for information that must be fed, not starved.

 

The NRC must get back into the security testing business. On September 10th, the NRC had plans for tests at fourteen nuclear plant sites. The NRC cancelled all the tests after September 11th. Seven months have passed and the NRC still has no firm plans to resume testing.

 

The last test demonstrated why testing is needed. NRC inspectors went to the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant last August. Their testing revealed weaknesses that were "considered generally predictable, repeatable and indicative of a broad programmatic problem."

 

A "broad programmatic problem" affecting security is unfortunate. But it would be far more unfortunate for such a problem to remain undetected. The NRC began its security tests in 1991. Approximately half of the 80-plus tests conducted have revealed serious problems. Given that performance has been consistent over the years, it is not overly speculative to assume that approximately seven of the fourteen tests planned for this year would have revealed serious problems. But none of those tests have been run. Thus, no problems have been found. More importantly, no problems have been fixed.

 

In addition to fixing security problems, the tests also provide the NRC with its best communication vehicle. State and local authorities face difficult decisions allocating resources for protection. Those decisions would be aided by knowledge that the NRC recently tested nuclear plant security within their jurisdictions. The tests would also help the NRC communicate with its public. The NRC publicly releases big picture information following security tests. The public is more likely to be reassured by a single test demonstrating adequate security than a thousand press releases from the industry proclaiming nuclear plants to be safe and secure.

 

The NRC must do a better job of public communications. The agency has remained virtually silent on an issue troubling many Americans. The NRC should follow the model of the recent Olympic Games. There was extensive media coverage about security. Reporters accompanied security details on patrols with bomb-sniffing dogs and prowled with surveillance teams using infra-red detection equipment. This approach provided enough security information to reassure an anxious public without giving too much information to anyone seeking to disrupt the games. It was a pro-active, responsible way to balance the public's right-to-know with the security concept of need-to-know.

 

The NRC should emulate the Olympic Games model by responsibly releasing security information. For example, media accounts after September 11 reported about citizens and local officials driving past unlocked and unmanned security gates onto the grounds of nuclear plants in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Maine. The public was understandably apprehensive. The NRC could have allayed concerns by pointing out that nuclear plants are ringed by two sets of gates outer gates for convenience and inner gates for security and the inner security gates were always manned and locked.

 

Responsible public communications also helps deter potential attacks. Part of the allure of The Club as an anti-car theft device is that it can be easily seen through car windows. Many homes and businesses have signs saying "Protected by Acme Security" in their windows - not so burglars will know how to defeat their security but to deter them from even trying. Responsible communications about nuclear plant security might dissuade anyone from staging an attack.

 

Our final example of information withheld by the agency that the public has both a right-to-know and a need-to-know involves emergency planning. All nuclear plants operating in the United States have emergency plans. The plans vary from community to community depending on the resources and decisions of state and local authorities.

 

Prior to September 11, the emergency plans were available on the NRC's website. Parents could access the plans and learn what protective measures would be taken for their children. Emergency plans were pulled from the public arena following September 11. The NRC must restore public access to this information. Parents have a right-to-know how their children will be protected.

 

The damage to the public psyche caused by the NRC's inactions has been done. The NRC must begin the healing process by resuming security tests, communicating responsibly with the public about security matters, and by providing the public with the information it needs regarding emergency plans. These measures can be accomplished within the NRC's existing budget.

 

To help the NRC along this path, the Congress could expand the scope of a report currently submitted to it each month by the agency. These reports provide the status on a range of NRC activities and could easily be expanded to include security tests, communications to the public on nuclear plant security matters, and availability of emergency planning information.

 

On behalf of UCS, I wish to thank the Committee for conducting this hearing and for considering our views on the matter.