“Indian Point and the rest of the nation’s nuclear power plants should not be expected to stop terrorists from flying airplanes into a reactor, federal regulators said yesterday, adding that such a security effort is best handled by others, such as the U.S. military.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said plant operators should focus on limiting radioactive releases and public exposure from any such airborne attack, the agency said in a revised defense plan for America’s nuclear plants.

“The active protection against airborne threats is addressed by other federal organizations, including the military,” the NRC said in a statement.

The agency rejected a proposal by a nuclear watchdog group that power plants be required to erect a “lattice-like” device or other barrier that would prevent an aircraft from reaching a reactor containment dome.

Jim Steets, a spokesman for Indian Point, said the NRC’s latest action merely codifies security improvements that have been in place locally since a year or so after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“There’s nothing in what was announced that we haven’t already done,” Steets said, listing security improvements at the Buchanan site that include moving perimeter barriers farther from the reactors and adding more security staff, new weapons and more cameras. “This just clarifies what companies are responsible for.”

Steets said the plant has the ability to protect itself from an attack that starts in the Hudson River or by land, but it wouldn’t make sense for Entergy Nuclear Northeast or any other business to start a fleet of F-15 fighter planes.

“It’s not good public policy and it’s impractical,” he said.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-Harrison, said in an e-mailed statement that she would like to see more from the NRC, specifically what plants can do to prevent an attack.

“An attack from commercial aircraft was never considered when our nation’s nuclear plants were designed decades ago, but we know since a plane flew directly over the Indian Point nuclear plants on Sept. 11th that our nuclear facilities need the highest possible level of protection,” Lowey said.

Currently, a plane is allowed to travel over the plant no lower than 3,000 feet and can’t linger, according to Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Riverkeeper officials, long concerned about security at that plant, said the NRC should have done more as well.

“By approving these weak changes to the security regulations, the NRC is once again putting the cost concerns of the nuclear industry ahead of public health and safety, said Phillip Musegaas, a policy analyst for the environmental organization. “Rather than requiring Indian Point to install floating security barriers on the Hudson river and hardening the spent fuel pool buildings against air attack, this new rule allows Entergy to continue with the status quo – preparing only for an attack by a small group of lightly armed terrorists.”

Details of the new defense plan are secret.

The NRC approved it by a 5-0 vote at a brief meeting at which the plan was not discussed publicly in any detail.

The revised plan has been the subject of intense internal discussions for 15 months.

The NRC, in a summary of the security plan, said that “active protection” against an airborne threat rests with organizations such as the FAA and the military.

It said that various mitigation strategies required of plant operators, such as radiation protection measures and evacuation plans, “are sufficient to ensure adequate protection of the public health and safety” in case of an airborne attack.

“This rule is an important piece, but only one piece of a broader effort to enhance nuclear power plant security,” NRC Chairman Dale Klein said in a statement.

The new plan spells out what the operators of the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants must be capable of defending against. It assumes that a terrorist attack force would be relatively small – and that its weapons would be limited.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in a letter to the NRC on Friday, said the agency’s defense requirements should “ensure that … the plants are prepared to defend against large attacking forces and commercial aircraft.”

Boxer is chair of the Senate committee, which has jurisdiction over the NRC.”

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