Concern over corporate profits appears to have trumped public safety in the crafting of a new rule regulating security at the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants.
So warns the Government Accountability Office, an independent federal agency that conducts audits for Congress. In a report released last month, the GAO found that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ignored the advice of its professional staff and scaled back recommended security upgrade requirements for commercial nuclear plants–and it did so after inappropriately consulting with nuclear industry leaders during the decision-making process. The GAO’s revelations come as debt-ridden Progress Energy remains under NRC and state investigation for security problems at its Shearon Harris nuclear plant near Raleigh.

The procedures NRC used in drawing up the security requirement “created the appearance that changes were made based on what industry considered reasonable and feasible to defend against rather than on what an assessment of the terrorist threat called for,” according to the report, which GAO Natural Resources and Environment Director Jim Wells presented at an April 4 hearing of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations. A successful attack on a nuclear reactor or spent-fuel storage facility could unleash massive amounts of radiation, kill tens of thousands of people outright and contaminate hundreds of square miles for generations.

The NRC order in question updates what’s known as the “design basis threat”–the standard governing the number of enemies and types of weapons against which nuclear reactor sites must be able to defend themselves. At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, which reportedly involved 19 hijackers, the standard required commercial nuclear reactors to defend against only three people armed with automatic weapons and an associate inside the plant. It did not require plants to defend against air strikes.

Following the 2001 attacks–the original plan for which included air hits on commercial nuclear plants, according to the 9/11 Commission–NRC resisted calls from Congress and public-interest groups to toughen the standard to protect against such scenarios. In April 2003, the NRC revised the design basis threat standard from three outside attackers to less than double that number, though the exact figure remains classified. The standard still does not require plants to be able to defend against air strikes, despite an effort by the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angeles-based nuclear watchdog, to require plants to erect so-called “Beamhenge” shields made from steel I-beams and cables.

In examining the NRC’s revision process, GAO found that NRC commissioners voted to downgrade requirements urged by their staff after the industry complained that such defenses would cost too much. The weapons that commissioners dropped from consideration included rocket-propelled grenades and .50-caliber sniper rifles using armor-piercing ammunition–arms commonly used by terrorists. The commissioners also relaxed protective requirements regarding the explosive power of truck bombs that could be detonated at nuclear plants.

The GAO’s report sparked outrage among nuclear safety advocates, who say it offers further evidence that the NRC puts industry profits above public safety.

“That the American flag instead of the NEI banner is flying outside NRC’s headquarters is galling, because the NRC is more concerned about protecting the financial interests of NEI’s clients than it is about protecting the health and safety of Americans,” says Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Washington office.

Along with the Durham-based N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, Lochbaum last year filed a formal NRC complaint alleging security at the Harris plant suffered due to a corporate emphasis on cost-cutting at Progress Energy, which is currently $11 billion in debt. In an interim report on the ongoing investigation, the NRC confirmed a number of problems at Harris, including chronically malfunctioning security doors to critical areas.

An armed guard from the facility who served as the primary source for the complaint says that rather than spending thousands of dollars to fix the broken doors, Progress supervisors instructed guards to refrain from yanking them during inspection patrols. The Independent is withholding the guard’s name to protect him from retaliation by his bosses at Securitas Security Services USA and Progress Energy. The guard took his complaints to N.C. WARN and the media only after reporting problems to the NRC but seeing no adequate corrective action taken.

Deepening watchdogs’ impression that the NRC defers to corporate cost concerns when overseeing plant security is the fact that commercial reactors are held to a lesser standard than government nuclear facilities. The design basis threat standard crafted by the Department of Energy, which governs federal nuclear operations, assumes about three times the attacking force wielding the more powerful weapons the NRC rejected–despite the fact that both agencies draw from the same intelligence information.

“The difference … in the two agencies’ processes is that the DOE does not have an industry lobbying them to lower their standards,” said Danielle Brian of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight in her testimony before the subcommittee.

Progress spokespersons contacted by the Independent declined to comment for this story. However, the nuclear industry defended itself by noting it has spent more than $1.2 billion to improve security since 2001.

“The industry, complying with NRC orders, instituted additional measures, such as extending and fortifying security perimeters, increasing patrols within security zones, installing new barriers to protect against vehicle bombs, installing additional high tech surveillance equipment, and strengthening security coordination with local, state and federal agencies,” Marvin Fertel, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, told the subcommittee. The NEI is the industry’s leading lobby and counts Progress among its members.

But the whistle-blowing Progress guard disputes the claim that the industry’s measures since 9/11 have been adequate to protect the public from radiological disaster. In fact, his experiences have led him to believe that security at commercial nuclear plants should be federalized in order to lessen the profit motive’s sway.

“The NRC waters down the [design basis threat], and then they don’t even make the plants prepare for that,” the guard says. “Progress wasn’t even fixing broken security doors at Harris. Security there is just a dog-and-pony show to make the public feel safe. I know I don’t feel safe.”