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Report says U.S. nuclear reactors remain vulnerable to terrorist attack

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The country’s commercial nuclear facilities remain vulnerable to terrorist threats more than decade after the 2001 attacks promoted tighter security at such facilities, according to a new report.

Done under a contract for the Pentagon by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) at the University of Texas at Austin, the report says none of the 104 commercial nuclear power reactors in the U.S. is protected against a maximum credible terrorist attack, because they’re still not required to defend against the number of terrorist teams or attackers associated with 9/11, nor against airplane attacks or high-power sniper rifles. 

Of particular concern to the NPPP, is that “some U.S. nuclear power plants are vulnerable to terrorist attack from the sea, but they are not required to protect against such ship-borne attacks,” the organization said in a press release about the report. It identified 8 reactors in this category: Diablo Canyon in California, St. Lucie in Florida, Brunswick in North Carolina, Surry in Virginia, Indian Point in New York, Millstone in Connecticut, Pilgrim in Massachusetts, and the South Texas Project.

Asked about the threat at Surry Power Station, located on the south bank of the James River in Surry County, Richard Zuercher, manager of nuclear public affairs for Dominion, said in a statement, “At Dominion, we understand that safety and security require constant vigilance.  Our nuclear generating stations, including North Anna, Surry, Millstone and Kewaunee power stations, are among the most robust and well-protected structures in the world today, and our security forces are trained and tested to the highest standards.

“We remain in close communication with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, and others in the nuclear industry in an ongoing self-improvement program to enhance the security of our facilities."

The report said another danger is posed by three civilian research reactors fueled with bomb-grade uranium, which are vulnerable to theft to make nuclear weapons. One of them, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is located two dozen miles from the White House in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore suburb of Gaithersburg.

The NPPP report also notes that some U.S. government nuclear facilities – operated by the Pentagon and Department of Energy – are protected against most or all of the above threats. The NPPP recommends that Washington require a level of protection at all potentially high-consequence U.S. nuclear targets – including both nuclear power reactors and civilian research facilities, sufficient to defend against a terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11. 

Since 2001, the U.S. nuclear industry has spent more than $2 billion on security enhancements to physical protection systems. However, the report says the
steps taken by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission aren’t enough to protect against a major terrorist attack because they deal only with threats that a plant is designed to handle, known  as  the “design-basis threat.”

The report, “Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack: Re-assessing the Current ‘Design Basis Threat’ Approach,” is available online at


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