When the realization struck that one of the World Trade Center airliners had flown right over the Indian Point nuclear power plant outside New York City, a few members of Congress, mainly from New York and Massachusetts, started asking questions–What if terrorists dive-bombed a reactor? What if they infiltrated a plant?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced a “top-to-bottom review” of security after Sept. 11, and since then has issued a series of orders to operators like Progress Energy. It summarized them last Sept. 11 in a statement saying: “The specific actions are sensitive, but generally include requirements for increased patrols, augmentation of the numbers and capabilities of security guards, additional security posts, installation of additional physical barriers, vehicle checks at greater stand-off distances, enhanced coordination with law enforcement and military authorities, and more restrictive site access controls. …”

The NRC said it was studying potential vulnerabilities to airplane crashes, bigger vehicle bombs and water-borne attacks.

In addition, the NRC and the industry drew up a new “design basis threat,” the level of attack a nuclear plant had to be able to handle, but they did so in secret. That prompted a scathing op-ed column in The New York Times last week by Bennett Ramberg, a former State Department analyst who wrote a book titled Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy in 1984 and has been an NRC critic ever since. If the new design basis threat was “intended to help people living near the plants sleep more soundly, it was a dismal failure,” Ramberg wrote, because of the secrecy and the plants apparently weren’t being ordered to do anything to ramp up physical defenses against air attack.

Rick Kimble, Progress Energy’s nuclear communications manager, confirms that. Kimble says the new security standard is “a tough one” that forces nuclear plants to beef up their security forces and improve their performance.

But the new rules are not forcing any physical changes in the plants, Kimble said, because the NRC is confident that they aren’t vulnerable from the air except to “acts of war”–missiles, bombs and the like.

Does the DBT address air attacks? Kimble paused, then answered: “Yes, to the extent that it can.” He declined to describe it further for security reasons.

Kimble noted that Progress Energy has consulted closely with nearby military bases, the FBI and state law enforcement officials, as directed by the NRC. If somebody hijacked an airliner going in or out of RDU International–which qualifies as an act of war, he said–the military aircraft flying out of Pope and Seymour Johnson would come after them in a flash. “They have jets that can intercept planes quicker than you can ever imagine,” he said.

Smiling, Kimble added: “Of course, we’d survive it, anyway.”