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Nuclear Facility Protection

​NOT ALL SECURITY design requirements for facilities that handle nuclear material are created equal, according to a recent report on nuclear facility threat assessment from researchers at the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Although the risks of an attack on nuclear facilities are rare, the damage could be swift and great. According to 2011 congressional testimony from Edwin Lyman of The Union of Concerned Scientists, “A well-planned and executed terrorist attack could cause damage comparable to or worse than the earthquake and tsunami that initiated the Fukushima crisis, potentially in even less time.”

The NPPP study found that numerous civilian and at least three research facilities that deal with nuclear material are unprepared for what the report describes as two credible types of attacks. One such attack would be the theft of bomb-grade material to make a nuclear weapon. The other type of attack would be a sabotage to cause a nuclear meltdown.

The report did find that government facilities operated by the Pentagon or the Department of Energy are better protected against potential attacks. Additionally, many commercial power plants had more stringent security requirements. Kuperman says this doesn’t make sense, since there is risk at all of the facilities. Kuperman says the researchers studied the protections at various facilities and then looked into the logic behind protecting different facilities in different ways. “What we found is that there is no rational reason for civilian nuclear facilities to be so much less well protected. And so our recommendation is that every nuclear facility in the U.S. that represents a potential catastrophic risk, or risk of catastrophe from terrorist attack, should be required to protect against a maximum credible terrorist attack.”

It all comes down to what is called design basis threat, or DBT. Kuperman explains that DBT “is the positive threat that a facility is required to defend against. So when the U.S. government comes along and says to its facilities, here is the design basis threat, your facilities must have protections that are sufficient to withstand an attack by this sort of a force using these sorts of weapons, that’s design basis threat.” The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is in charge of regulating the civilian use of nuclear materials such as in commercial power plants and at academic research reactors, does not publicly release DBTs of the nation’s nuclear facilities. “Design basis threats are classified. And so the only thing we can go on is what’s been leaked, and that’s what we cite in our paper,” says Kuperman.

According to the leaked information, while government facilities are required to protect against larger scale attacks of upwards of 20 attackers, civilian facilities only have to guard against about five or six attackers, he says. The report recommends that these facilities with lower DBT minimums increase security standards. Kuperman asserts that it has possibly been the power of the nuclear industry lobbying against more stringent and expensive security measures that helps keeps standards lower. Kuperman adds that if there were increased security standards, perhaps the government would have to share the burden with private facilities that could not afford to defend against the same types of attacks as government facilities.

The report has received criticism. NRC spokesperson David McIntyre says that “the report offers no new insights or information…. It stems from a period where there was a fair amount of discussion over nuclear power plant security in the years following 9-11 as we moved to take measures to enhance that security and impose new requirements on the plants.”

The report says that civilian facilities have improved their protections in the years since 9-11, but it asserts that the efforts have been inadequate.

Additionally, McIntyre argues with the researchers’ fundamental stance that attacks on various civilian or research facilities would pose as much risk as those on the better-protected military facilities. “They argue that a nuclear power plant presents the same sort of risk as a nuclear weapons facility, and that’s simply not the case in terms of what we think a terrorist might try to accomplish or the reward for the possible danger should they succeed. They’re just not comparable.”

Some nuclear research facilities have released statements since the report came out reiterating their levels of protection based on the materials they deal with, such as University of Missouri and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which told Security Management that “NIST takes the security of its nuclear research reactor very seriously. Security at the facility meets or exceeds all requirements of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

However, Kuperman points out that “we never criticize the utilities for failing to meet the requirements. We never criticize NIST, we never criticize the operators at MIT or at the University of Missouri. They are all meeting the requirements. The problem is not failure to meet the requirements. The problem is that the requirements are too weak. So the problem is from the NRC and from the U.S. government.