Nuclear Control Institute
1000 Connecticut Avenue N.W.
Suite 410
Washington DC 2003


Committee to Bridge the Gap
1637 Butler Avenue
Suite 203
Los Angeles CA 90025


Tuesday, September 25, 2001 202-822-8444;


            WASHINGTONThe nations 103 nuclear power reactors are vulnerable to attack by terrorists, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other government entities have failed to move decisively to impose the further security measures that are needed to prevent a successful attack and avert catastrophic radiological consequences.

            This was the warning issued today by two watchdog organizations that have made many attempts over the past 17 years to convince the NRC and commercial nuclear plant operators to upgrade their defenses against assaults by terrorist organizations. 

In their letter, the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute and the Los Angeles-based Committee to Bridge the Gap released a recent exchange of letters with NRC Chairman Richard A. Meserve. The two organizations cited the extraordinary and unprecedented threat that now exists inside the United States in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They laid out specific proposals for denying terrorists the opportunity to destroy nuclear power plants. 

These proposals include immediate use of National Guard troops to deter attacks from land and water, prompt deployment of advanced anti-aircraft weapons to defeat suicidal attacks from the air, and a thorough re-vetting of all plant employees and contractors to protect against sabotage by insiders.  In addition, the groups called on the NRC to significantly upgrade its security regulations to protect against the larger numbers and the greater sophistication of attackers posed by the new terrorist threat.

In a brief response to the specific proposals, Meserve stated only that the Commission is evaluating current requirements and statutory authority relating to acts or threats of terrorism, including but not limited to those that you presented in your letter. 

This is a familiar refrain, and we do not have the luxury of time to allow the NRC and other federal agencies to engage in a prolonged bureaucratic review process, said Paul Leventhal, president of NCI, at a press conference in Washington.  Iran threatened attacks against U.S. reactors as early as 1987, but recent trial testimony has revealed that bin Ladens training camps are offering instruction in urban warfare against enemies installations including power plants. It is prudent to assume, especially after the horrific, highly coordinated attacks of September 11, that bin Ladens soldiers have done their homework and are fully capable to attack nuclear plants for maximum effect.

Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, underscored the immediate danger by noting that nearly half of the plants tested in NRC-supervised security exercises have failed to repel mock terrorist attacks. These exercises involve small numbers of simulated attackers compared with the large cell of terrorists now understood to have waged the four sophisticated attacks of September 11.  The NRCs mock terrorist exercises severely limit the tactics, weapons and explosives used by the adversary, yet in almost half the tests they reached and simulated destruction of safety systems that in real attacks could have caused severe core damage, meltdown and catastrophic radioactive releases. Now in response to operator complaints, the NRC is actually preparing to shift responsibility for supervising these exercises to the operators themselves.  Current events clearly show that nuclear power plant security is too important to be left to industry self-assessment.

 Dr. Edwin Lyman, a physicist and NCIs scientific director, pointed out that a direct, high-speed hit by a large commercial passenger jet would in fact have a high likelihood a penetrating a containment building that houses a power reactor.  Following such an assault, he said, the possibility of an unmitigated loss-of-coolant accident and significant release of radiation into the environment is a very real one.  Such a release, whether caused by an air strike, or by a ground or water assault, or by insider sabotage could result in tens of thousands of cancer deaths downwind of the plant.  A number of these plants are located near large cities, he noted.

 In making their presentations, the organizations acknowledged that they have long been troubled by the dilemma of speaking about the present vulnerability of nuclear power plants.  We have tried to work quietly for a decade and a half in a largely unsuccessful attempt to get the NRC to upgrade reactor security. said Leventhal.  Our principal success came in 1994 when the NRC agreed to require nuclear plant operators to erect barriers and establish setback distances to protect against truck-bomb attacks.  But this reform came only after the lesson of the bombing of the World Trade Center the year before, and the NRC has refused our appeals to upgrade protection to defend against the much larger bombs used by terrorists since.

Hirsch said that the horrendous attacks of September 11 have now made NRC foot dragging intolerable.  The new threat should now be evident to all, and the country can afford to wait no longer, he said. The vulnerabilities at these plants can and must be closed, now.  The American people have a right to know the dangers and to demand the prompt corrective actions that we propose to protect nuclear power plants from terrorist attacks and the unthinkable consequences that could follow.

Copies of the letter to Meserve were sent to the governors of the 32 states where nuclear power plants are located and to several Federal agencies.  Some members of Congress, including Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) who sent his own letter to Meserve, are actively monitoring the NRCs role in protecting nuclear power plants against the heightened terrorist threat.