Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

Two Years Later Nuclear, Chemical Plants Still Vulnerable

The September 11 Nuclear Scenario
(ENS) -- Two years ago, terrorist strikes demolished the World Trade Towers in New York and damaged the Pentagon in the nation's capital, killing more than 3,000 people and injuring thousands more. Since then, the United States has spent billions of dollars upgrading safety and security, but critics of the Bush administration say U.S. nuclear and chemical facilities are still vulnerable and much more remains to be done.

As President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush hosted a moment of remembrance and stood on the White House lawn with other dignitaries and bowed their heads, the President said, "We remember a sad and terrible day, September the 11th, 2001. We remember lives lost. We remember the heroic deeds. We remember the compassion and the decency of our fellow citizens on that terrible day."

In New York, bells tolled across the city in remembrance, and at Ground Zero children read aloud the names of those who died while family members descended into the depths of the pit to lay flowers. A tribute in lights was enacted at sundown.

And now it is urgent that the Bush administration and the Congress do more to protect all Americans, and particularly those who live near chemical plants and nuclear facilities, public interest organizations said today.

"Another year has passed, and millions who live and work near nuclear facilities are still exposed to unconscionable risks," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a national nonprofit public interest group based in Washington, DC.

Over the past two years, Claybrook said, "Congress and the Bush administration have launched two wars and poured billions of dollars into fighting terrorism. So it is shameful and baffling that they have failed to address one of the most glaring vulnerabilities in the United States -- our insecure nuclear power plants."

"The 103 nuclear reactors in the country were never designed to withstand the type of attack we saw in 2001, and we now know that al Qaeda specifically discussed targeting nuclear facilities," said Claybrook, referring to the international terrorist group.

Nearly half of the facilities tested under a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) program between 1991 and 2001 had serious vulnerabilities identified, Claybrook pointed out. But those tests have been discontinued.

A 2002 report by the Project on Government Oversight, a politically independent, nonprofit watchdog group, found that security forces at nuclear power plants remain understaffed, under-equipped and under-trained.

In April 2002, the Department of Energy failed to win supplemental funding for security at nuclear weapons facilities from the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat, released correspondence between agency officials showing that the OMB did not even allow Energy Department officials to make their case for the additional funding before the request was denied.

Nuclear facility employees surveyed in 2002 by the NRC Inspector General stated that safety training is based on outdated scenarios and leaves nuclear sites vulnerable to sabotage.

Markey and Claybrook both say that new security regulations for nuclear facilities issued by the NRC in April were crafted in secret meetings and never opened to public comment. Public Citizen and the California group Mothers for Peace sued the agency this summer to open the new rules to public input.

Last December, Markey released notes of a meeting between NRC officials and representatives of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear industry trade association, showing that "the nuclear industry is seeking to coordinate lobbying activities with the NRC aimed at blocking Congressional legislation to strengthen at the nation's 103 nuclear power plants."

Claybrook says that if Congress authorizes the $87 billion for military and reconstruction costs in Iraq requested by the President earlier this week, "it would follow that Congress would mandate security improvements at commercial nuclear facilities."

"Instead," she says, "Congress has almost diabolically worked against any legislation to improve nuclear security. Lawmakers have stripped security amendments introduced by Representative Ed Markey from 2002 energy legislation and allowed the Nuclear Security Act of 2002 -- which would have established an interagency task force to evaluate security, emergency response and evacuation plans at nuclear facilities -- to languish."

There are some 15,000 major chemical facilities nationwide, and the Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 100 chemical plants that each could endanger a million or more people if attacked.

Many of these chemical plants are vulnerable to terrorist attack partly because of the policies of the Bush administration and the Republican controlled Congress, according to a new legislative analysis released to mark the second anniversary of 9/11 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Physical security at dozens of chemical plants is inadequate, the NRDC said, citing an investigative series published last year by the "Pittsburgh Tribune-Review." One of the paper's reporters gained access to sensitive areas at more than 60 chemical plants, including tanks where toxics were stored.

Federal agencies have also warned of risks at chemical plants. On February 12, the National Infrastructure Protection Center, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, warned that "Al Qa'ida operatives ... may attempt to launch conventional attacks against the U.S. nuclear/chemical-industrial infrastructure to cause contamination, disruption, and terror."

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in the Department of Health and Human Services found in 1999 that "security at chemical plants ranged from fair to very poor."

Two bills have been introduced in Congress to address chemical plant risks. New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine, a Democrat, introduced the Chemical Security Act (S. 157) which requires that companies submit a plan for response to security breaches for official review by the EPA and the Department of Homeland Security. The Corzine bill would require companies to use inherently safer technology where "practicable," meaning available and affordable.

Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a Republican, introduced the Chemical Facilities Security Act (S. 994), which is backed by the Bush administration. Under this bill, companies need not submit a response plan unless requested to do so, and review is left to the discretion of officials. The EPA's involvement is limited to providing "technical and analytical support" on request of the Department of Homeland Security, and the EPA is barred from performing "field work."

Under the Inhofe bill, companies utilize "security measures to reduce the vulnerability of the chemical source," but there are no standards that must be met. Inherently safer technology is not mentioned.

Jon Devine of NRDC says, "We're disappointed in the Bush administration's weak response to this important aspect of homeland security."

"The Bush proposal will not require chemical facilities to implement inherently safer technologies, even when a low hazard alternative is cheap and easy. Letting companies ignore available and affordable process changes that make them less vulnerable to attack is irresponsible," the NRDC says.

"Bolstering on site security measures is important, but," said Devine, "people won't rest easier until chemical companies at least make modest improvements to make their facilities less likely terrorist targets."

Today, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge told the country that America is safer now that it was before September 11, 2001. "The post September 11 era is a new and different chapter in American history marked by our greater awareness of the threats we face," said Ridge. "It is also marked by the collective political will of the American people to take action in ways not thought possible before."

Secretary Ridge noted that airline security is improved due to the presence of "50,000 highly trained and professional federal employees" who at work to "increase the security and facilitate the flow of passengers in our airports."

More of the 20,000 cargo containers that enter U.S. ports every day are now screened by U.S. inspectors in ports like Rotterdam or Singapore before they leave for the United States.

The national stockpile of medications to protect Americans against a bioterrorist attack, once "drastically undersupplied" is now amounts to "a billion doses of antibiotics and vaccines, including enough smallpox vaccine for every man, women and child in America," Ridge said.

And since September 11, 2001, agencies in the federal government are better at sharing information and intelligence between themselves and with state and local officials, he said.

But Secretary Ridge made no mention of the state of security at the 103 U.S. nuclear power plants and the more than 15,000 U.S. chemical facilities.

© 2003 Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor September 9, 2003 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.