America’s nuclear power plants are safe

A decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have become accustomed to heightened security at airports, train stations and major public events. For the tens of thousands of employees at America’s 104 commercial nuclear energy plants, dramatic security enhancements have become a staple of the daily workplace.

Ten years ago, nuclear plant security already was formidable and presented a clear deterrent against potential threats. Still, because of the 9/11 attacks, security was elevated to an unprecedented level. This immediate response was followed by a more deliberate assessment — including comprehensive reviews conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FBI and other federal and state agencies — that led to longer-term improvements in nuclear energy safety and security. Most recently, the industry has implemented safeguards to protect these facilities against cyber threats.

Since 2001, the nuclear industry has spent more than $2 billion on security enhancements, including the addition of thousands of highly qualified security officers. This layer upon layer of formidable security includes physical barriers, followed by state-of-the-art detection technology, followed by sophisticated protocols for plant access, followed by added surveillance capabilities, and backed by a protective force of thousands of highly trained, well-armed officers.

Today, the nation’s 104 reactors are protected by more than 8,000 security officers, many with military or law enforcement experience. Access within the protected zone is highly restricted with locked and alarmed doors, hand geometry access controls and other sophisticated security equipment. They also have integrated communications and coordinated emergency response plans to ensure support from local, state and federal security and law enforcement personnel. Plant security teams conduct extensive “force-on-force” training exercises that realistically simulate large-scale attacks and these exercises are evaluated by independent federal regulators.

Over the past 10 years, there has been no credible attack threat directed at America’s nuclear power plants. Nonetheless, the industry took additional steps to guard against an unlikely 9/11-style attack on a commercial reactor. An independent, peer-reviewed analysis conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute in 2002 found that nuclear power plant structures could withstand a deliberate crash by a fully fueled 767-400 jetliner. The study examined possible impacts on the reactor containment building as well as structures storing used nuclear fuel rods.

Containment structures, the most critical part of any nuclear power plant, are required to be designed to withstand earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other catastrophic events. Reactors are protected by a six-inch steel liner, within a containment structure that consists of about four feet of steel-reinforced concrete. The steel reinforcing bar is about the thickness of a person’s forearm.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) conducted its own aircraft impact studies and reached similar conclusions. But the federal agency took the additional step of ordering companies that operate nuclear power plants to develop strategies to mitigate the effect of fires and explosions that could result from an aircraft crash and other acts of terrorism. Those changes and other security enhancements required by the NRC have been implemented at nuclear energy facilities across the country. The specific changes are classified, for obvious reasons.