Despite efforts to improve security, the nation’s nuclear power plants remain vulnerable to terrorist attack five years after Sept. 11, concerned citizens and members of Congress say.

Connecticut is one of 31 states with nuclear power plants. The Millstone complex, which has two operating reactors and one closed reactor, is in Waterford, about 65 miles east of Bridgeport. It is operated by Dominion Generation. About 50 miles west of Bridgeport, Entergy Nuclear Northeast operates the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, N.Y.

Both plants have been the target of fierce criticism from some neighbors who fear for their safety, especially if terrorists should strike. Dominion and Entergy say the plants are safe and secure and the nuclear power industry argues that a Chernobyl-style meltdown in this country is improbable.

Phillip Musegaas, policy analyst at Riverkeeper Inc., a New York-based environmental group, said that his organization believes security at Indian Point is inadequate and vulnerable to terrorism.

“There is still no evidence the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] has upgraded their security regulations enough to guarantee that plants are protected from the type of attacks that occurred on Sept. 11,” he said.

Riverkeeper officials have said that the Bridgeport region faces a greater potential threat from Indian Point because prevailing winds would likely drive any plume of radiation right into the area.

Most nuclear plants in the nation hire private security guards to protect the facilities. NRC boosted requirements for these guards in 2003 but not to the point where they would be able to repel a dozen or more heavily armed, well-trained attackers, Musegaas said. The exact level of force, however, is classified. So it is impossible to say with certainty what requirements have been imposed.

In April, the General Accountability Office released a report that gave mixed reviews to nuclear power security. The report, requested by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, found that since 2003 a number of concrete steps had been taken to buttress the plants against potential terrorist attacks.

It found that buffer zones had been augmented where possible, barriers thickened and detection equipment installed or upgraded.

Security forces were enlarged and armed with new weapons.

However, GAO said it was too early to claim victory since less than half of the 65 sites overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had undergone “force-on-force” exercises intended to test security.

Moreover, GAO found gaps in security at some of the sites inspected.

“The bottom line is, our nuclear security facilities are safer thanks to some security upgrades, but they are still not safe,” said Shays, chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on national security. “I will continue to shine the spotlight on this issue until we feel certain nuclear facilities are capable of protecting their reactors from attack.” The subcommittee has held five hearings on nuclear security since 2004.

Shays’ Democratic opponent, Diane Farrell, has called for better emergency and evacuation planning for nuclear power plants. As Westport First Selectwoman, Farrell got the town to purchase potassium iodide tablets that are recommended as a prophylactic against exposure to cancer-causing radiation. Entergy points to a Department of Homeland Security comprehensive review that recognized nuclear plants as “the best-protected assets of our critical infrastructure,” but acknowledged the value of enhancing the protection at these facilities.

“Despite new security provisions — including expanded disaster coordination, more extensive background checks on personnel and stronger criminal penalties for those involved in wrongdoing — I remain concerned that the state of nuclear power plant security is not at the level it should be five years after September 11,” said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. “I will continue to support efforts to ensure that security personnel are adequately trained, and that Americans living in close proximity to plants are fully protected.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., also believes stronger security is needed at nuclear power plants and in safeguarding nuclear material.

He has advocated that the NRC tighten its security regulations and has actively pursued efforts to get the Department of Homeland Security to develop effective screening systems for nuclear materials that could be used to make a dirty bomb, according to a spokeswoman.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, blamed the Bush administration for failing “to fully secure our nation’s nuclear facilities.” She pointed to GAO complaints, included in its latest report, that the energy industry had successfully pressured NRC to impose less stringent security standards on nuclear power plants than NRC staff had recommended.

Marvin Fertel, a senior vice president at Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association, told Shays’ subcommittee that the industry maintains “extremely high levels of security” at its facilities.

Fertel pointed out that nuclear power plants are massive structures with thick steel reinforced exterior walls and internal barriers of reinforced concrete built to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and floods. In addition, there are redundant safety systems, surveillance equipment and trained security forces present, he said. “The industry has invested more than $1.2 billion in security improvements at nuclear plant sites and has increased the number of specially trained, well-armed security forces by more than 60 percent,” he said.

The NRC has also elevated nuclear facility security requirements on a number of occasions since Sept. 11, 2001, and is in the process of codifying additional requirements.

Nancy Burton, director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Millstone and the Green Party candidate for Connecticut attorney general, said that Millstone remains vulnerable to terrorist attacks and worries that security systems are not functioning as advertised.

Burton said that a company whistleblower came forward to say that Dominion routinely disabled its perimeter system because it was overly sensitive to wind. Sham Mehta of East Lyme, has filed a complaint with the Connecticut Department of Public Utility Control, claiming that he was fired after informing supervisors that company managers allowed operators to disable the electronic trespass system used to near Millstone’s three reactors and spent-fuel pools.

Burton also complained that Millstone was vulnerable to a water-based attack. Dominion, she said, rejected an offer from the Department of Homeland Security to have a floating barrier installed around its massive water intakes similar to those that protect the nuclear submarines in Groton.

“If you drove a motorboat full of explosives into one of the operating intakes you could disable the pumps and there would inevitably be a nuclear meltdown,” Burton said. “If you go to Millstone you’ll see there is no barrier.”

Lieberman had staff meet with DHS more than a year ago to discuss the barrier issue. DHS said it had offered the barrier as a technology demonstration project, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not

believe it was necessary. Dominion backed out and no similar barrier has been installed at any other nuclear power plant, according to a Lieberman spokeswoman.

Security concerns have also been raised about Indian Point.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., spoke at the National Press Club in May about energy policy and raised concerns about the potential for more nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels.

“We do have to take a serious look, but there remain very serious questions about nuclear power and our ability to manage it in a world with suicidal terrorists,” she said. “I have real concerns, specifically about a plant in my state near where I live, Indian Point, which has had a number of problems.”

Clinton and other members of the New York delegation have pressed the NRC to conduct a thorough, independent safety review of Indian Point.

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