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26 September 2001

Text: U.S. Nuclear Power Plants Ordered to Maintain Heightened Security

(NRC did not contemplate possible attacks by jetliners) (1410)
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Richard Meserve has
requested a review of security measures at the nation's 103 nuclear
power plants following, the September 11 terrorist attacks with
hijacked commercial jetliners on the World Trade Center and the
In a press release issued September 21, the NRC said nuclear power
plants and fuel facilities had been ordered to maintain the highest
level of security, which include increased patrols, augmented security
forces and heightened coordination with law enforcement and military
The NRC also said that it had not contemplated attacks by hijacked
large commercial airliners and that U.S. nuclear power plants were not
designed to withstand such crashes.
The agency said that while containment buildings that shelter nuclear
reactors are able to withstand severe events including hurricanes,
tornadoes and earthquakes, "detailed engineering analyses of a large
airliner crash have not yet been performed."
The NRC said that the crash of a jetliner into a nuclear power plant
would not trigger a nuclear explosion.
Two nuclear watchdog groups told reporters September 25 that the NRC
and other government entities have failed to impose the security
measures needed to prevent a successful terrorist attack and avert a
potential catastrophe.
About 20 percent of the U.S. electricity supply comes from nuclear
reactors, located in 31 states.
Following is the text of the NRC press release:
(begin text)
Office of Public Affairs
September 21, 2001
In light of the recent terrorist attacks, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory
Commission officials and staff have been working around the clock to
ensure adequate protection of nuclear power plants and nuclear fuel
facilities. This has involved close coordination with the Federal
Bureau of Investigation, other intelligence and law enforcement
agencies, NRC licensees, and military, state and local authorities.
Immediately after the attacks, the NRC advised nuclear power plants to
go to the highest level of security, which they promptly did. The NRC
has advised its licensees to maintain heightened security. The agency
continues to monitor the situation, and is prepared to make any
adjustments to security measures as may be deemed appropriate.
In view of the recent unprecedented events, Chairman Richard A.
Meserve, with the full support of the Commission, has directed the
staff to review the NRC's security regulations and procedures.
A number of questions have come in from reporters and members of the
public since the tragic events of September 11. The following
questions and answers are offered in response:
Q: What would happen if a large commercial airliner was intentionally
crashed into a nuclear power plant?
A: Nuclear power plants have inherent capability to protect public
health and safety through such features as robust containment
buildings, redundant safety systems, and highly trained operators.
They are among the most hardened structures in the country and are
designed to withstand extreme events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes
and earthquakes. In addition, all NRC licenses with significant
radiological material have emergency response plans to enable the
mitigation of impacts on the public in the event of a release.
However, the NRC did not specifically contemplate attacks by aircraft
such as Boeing 757s or 767s and nuclear power plants were not designed
to withstand such crashes. Detailed engineering analyses of a large
airliner crash have not yet been performed.
Q: What measures have the NRC and its power plant licensees taken in
face of this potential threat?
A: Immediately after the attacks, the NRC advised licensees to go to
the highest level of security, which all did promptly. The specific
actions are understandably sensitive, but they generally included such
things as increased patrols, augmented security forces and
capabilities, additional security posts, heightened coordination with
law enforcement and military authorities, and limited access of
personnel and vehicles to the sites.
Q: What, precisely, did the NRC do in response to the attacks?
A: At 10 a.m. on September 11, the NRC activated its Emergency
Operations Center in headquarters and assembled a team of top
officials and specialists. The same was done in each of its four
regional offices. In addition to communicating with its licensees
about the need to go to the highest level of security, the NRC
established communications with the FBI, the Department of Energy, and
the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among others. NRC personnel
were dispatched to the FBI's Strategic Information Operations Center.
The NRC has also established close communications with nuclear
regulators in Canada and Mexico.
Q: What would happen if a large aircraft should crash into a spent
fuel dry storage cask?
A: The capacity of spent fuel dry storage casks to withstand a crash
by a large commercial aircraft has not been analyzed. Nonetheless,
storage casks are robust and must be capable of withstanding severe
impacts, such as might occur during tornadoes, hurricanes or
earthquakes. In the event that a cask were breached, any impacts would
be localized. All spent fuel storage facilities have plans to respond
to such an emergency, drawn up in consultation with local officials.
Q: What if a large aircraft crashed into a spent fuel transportation
cask in a heavily populated area?
A: Again, the capacity of shipping casks to withstand such a crash has
not been analyzed. However, they are designed to protect the public in
severe transportation accidents. The cask must be able to withstand a
30-foot drop puncture test, exposure to a 30-minute fire at 1475
degrees Fahrenheit, and submersion under water for an extended period.
Moreover, the location of loaded casks is not publicly disclosed and
such a cask would present a small target to an aircraft .
If an airliner crashed into a cask, there could be some localized
impacts. Regulations require special accident response training of
those involved in shipping, as well as coordination with state, local
and tribal emergency response personnel. In addition, redundant
communications must be maintained during shipment with the transporter
vehicle; this would facilitate emergency response, if necessary.
Q: Could such a crash into a nuclear power plant, or a storage or
shipping cask trigger a nuclear explosion?
A: No.
Q: What are the consequences if an airliner crashed into a uranium
fuel cycle facility?
A: Because of the nature of the material, there would likely be only
minimal off-site radiological consequences. Some such facilities use
chemicals similar to those found at many industrial facilities. In the
event of a release, comprehensive emergency response procedures would
be immediately implemented.
Q: Have nuclear power plants been subject to attack in the past?
A: There has never been an attack on a nuclear power plant. On very
rare occasions there have been intrusions. For example, there was a
1993 car crash through the gates of Three Mile Island plant by an
individual with a history of treatment for mental illness. Such
intrusions have not resulted in harm to public health or safety.
Q: What are the normal security measures at commercial nuclear power
A: Licensees are required to implement security programs that include
well-armed civilian guard forces, physical barriers, detection
systems, access controls, alarm stations, and detailed response
strategies. NRC routinely inspects security measures as part of its
normal reactor oversight process and periodically undertakes various
exercises, including force-on-force exercises, so as to assure that
any vulnerabilities are exposed and corrected .
Q: Is an attack using an airplane part of the NRC's design basis
threat against which its licensees have to defend?
A: No. The NRC has been in close and continuing contact with law
enforcement and the military regarding such a threat.
Q: What exactly is the so-called design basis threat?
A: The details of the design basis threat are classified, but it
includes the characteristics of a possible sabotage attempt that NRC
licensees are required to protect against. The agency continually
assesses the adequacy of the design basis threat in consultation with
local law enforcement and federal intelligence agencies.
Q: Is the NRC contemplating a modification of the design basis threat?
A: The agency will continue to coordinate with law enforcement and
intelligence agencies to assess the implications of this new
manifestation of terrorism. If the NRC determines that the design
basis threat warrants revision, such changes would occur through a
public rulemaking.
(end text)
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site:

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