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Monday, September 10, 2012

Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerabilities

Mark Holt
Specialist in Energy Policy

Anthony Andrews
Specialist in Energy and Defense Policy

The physical security of nuclear power plants and their vulnerability to deliberate acts of terrorism was elevated to a national security issue following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Congress subsequently enacted new nuclear plant security requirements and has repeatedly focused attention on regulation and enforcement by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). More than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, security at nuclear plants remains an important concern.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT05, P.L. 109-58) imposed specific criteria for NRC to consider in revising the “Design Basis Threat” (DBT), which specifies the maximum severity of potential attacks that a nuclear plant’s security force must be capable of repelling. In response to the legislative mandate, NRC revised the DBT (10 C.F.R. Part 73.1) on April 18, 2007. Among other changes, the revisions expanded the assumed capabilities of adversaries to operate as one or more teams and attack from multiple entry points.

To strengthen nuclear plant security inspections, EPACT05 required NRC to conduct “force-onforce” security exercises at nuclear power plants at least once every three years. In these exercises, a mock adversary force from outside a nuclear plant attempts to penetrate the plant’s vital area and simulate damage to a “target set” of key safety components. From the start of the program through 2010, 136 force-on-force inspections were conducted, with each inspection typically including three mock attacks by the adversary force. During the 136 inspections, 10 mock attacks resulted in the simulated destruction of complete target sets, indicating inadequate protection against the DBT, and additional security measures were promptly implemented, according to NRC.

Nuclear power plant vulnerability to deliberate aircraft crashes has been a continuing issue. After much consideration, NRC published final rules on June 12, 2009, to require all new nuclear power plants to incorporate design features that would ensure that, in the event of a crash by a large commercial aircraft, the reactor core would remain cooled or the reactor containment would remain intact, and radioactive releases would not occur from spent fuel storage pools.

NRC rejected proposals that existing reactors also be required to protect against aircraft crashes, such as by adding large external steel barriers, deciding that other mitigation measures already required by NRC for all reactors were sufficient. In 2002, NRC ordered all nuclear power plants to develop strategies to mitigate the effects of large fires and explosions that could result from aircraft crashes or other causes. NRC published a broad final rule on nuclear reactor security March 27, 2009, including fire mitigation strategies and requirements that reactors establish procedures for responding to specific aircraft threats.

Other ongoing nuclear plant security issues include the vulnerability of spent fuel pools, which hold highly radioactive nuclear fuel after its removal from the reactor, standards for nuclear plant security personnel, and nuclear plant emergency planning. NRC’s March 2009 security regulations addressed some of those concerns and included a number of other security enhancements.

Date of Report: August 28, 2012
Number of Pages: 15
Order Number: RL34331
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