Now that the government has conceded that nuclear plants very well could be vulnerable to terrorist-directed airstrikes, officials at FirstEnergy Corp.'s Davis Besse nuclear plant in Ottawa County and Detroit Edison Co.'s Fermi II nuclear plant in Monroe County are anxious to learn how federal regulators want them to proceed.
Could those and other utilities soon be given the green light to shoot down unauthorized planes flying close to their nuclear plants?
They will if a Washington group called the National Whistleblower Center gets its way. The center, known for providing legal help to nuclear plant workers who raise safety allegations against their employers, is demanding immediate security upgrades. In a petition filed Wednesday with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the center said it wants all nuclear plants to be equipped with anti-aircraft missiles and be given the authority to shoot down planes that violate any future flyover restrictions.
Richard Wilkins, a FirstEnergy spokesman, said it will be up to the NRC to decide if it wants to “turn a commercial power plant into a military site.”
John Austerberry, a Detroit Edison spokesman, agreed. “We're maintaining the highest level of security required by the NRC, and we're in daily contact with senior NRC officials,” he said.
Airspace over nuclear plants is not technically restricted now, although the Federal Aviation Administration has issued an advisory stating that pilots are “strongly urged” to avoid going over them and other types of power stations, as well as dams, reservoirs, refineries, and military installations.
Victor Dricks, an NRC spokesman, said the whistleblower center's 32-page petition “will be carefully reviewed, and we will take whatever action is appropriate.”
The petition was filed after the center learned about a 1982 federal report that was still available until recently. In that document the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois outlined in great precision what could occur if a reactor building took a direct hit from a jetliner at a fast speed.
The 119-page report was available for public inspection for 19 years, even after federal officials reportedly learned in 1994 that terrorists wanted to strike a nuclear plant.
Shortly after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were struck Sept. 11, the NRC disabled its Internet web site and began deciding what to take off it. The site recently went back on line but with many items removed.
The decision was made to focus on the web site, Mr. Dricks explained, because it is the source for the fastest and widest distribution of information.
On Oct. 3, the whistleblower group sent an intern to the NRC's public document room to see what was still available there. The 1982 Argonne report was among the items that were copied and brought back, Michael Kohn, the center's legal director, said.
Eight days later, on Oct. 11 - the one-month anniversary of the attacks - the NRC removed that report from its document room, Mr. Dricks said.
Mr. Kohn said his group's long-term recommendation is to have utilities pay millions necessary to make reactor buildings thick and strong enough to withstand the most powerful jetliner crash.
FirstEnergy and Detroit Edison officials remained tight-lipped yesterday about their security measures, although acknowledging there are more armed guards and fewer visitors.
Davis Besse has added roughly $1 million to its security budget through Dec. 31 to beef up anything from inspections of vehicles and mail deliveries to background checks of employees and contracted workers, Mr. Wilkins said.
A debate over information accessibility has been waged against several federal agencies in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, as government officials try to balance the public's right to know against unprecedented security issues.
Just 14 days ago, on Oct. 12, the Ralph Nader-founded activist organization Public Citizen issued a statement critical of the NRC's decision to temporarily disable its government web site, stating that reactors themselves should be shut down - not the government records - if nuclear plants are such dangerous targets.
“Shutting down the nuclear plants - what does that get you except losing 20 percent of the nation's power without Osama bin Laden firing a shot,” Mr. Wilkins asked.
Mr. Austerberry said the nuclear industry has become “more and more protective about security and about its operations.” since Sept. 11. “The outcome may very well be a reduction in the amount of information being released,” he said.