About an hour after two jets crashed into the World Trade Center towers, a sickening thought struck James Howard. What if terrorists flew a hijacked airliner into the Zion nuclear power plant, located a mile from Howard’s house and 40 miles from Chicago? The Zion plant is no longer operating, but it’s home to 1,100 tons of nuclear waste. What kind of security was there? Howard, a former Zion employee, decided to take a drive.

“I drove right through the front gate, right up past the two silos–maybe 100 feet from them–turned around, and came back out,” he says. “Nobody stopped me.”

Later in the day, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that all the nation’s nuclear power plants–including the six in Illinois–go to the highest level of alert. Exelon, which owns all of the state’s nuclear plants, increased the number of security guards on each shift and the frequency of patrols. Governor Ryan ordered state police officers to stand watch at the front gates of the nuclear facilities. No one is sure how long the increased security will last. “I think it will be for some time,” says Exelon spokesperson Ann Mary Carley.

But critics say additional guards may not be enough. They point out that 50 percent of the nation’s nuclear power plants have failed NRC “attacks” by mock terrorists during the last decade–even when they knew the terrorists were coming. No one ever planned for a terrorist attack by a jumbo jet. Neither the NRC nor industry experts know if a direct hit to the plants would cause a deadly release of radiation. But says NRC spokesperson Victor Dricks, “they were not designed to withstand an attack by a jetliner.”

The NRC announced last week that it plans to study whether the structures containing the reactors and spent fuel should be fortified against such an attack. In addition, the agency said it is reviewing security regulations and procedures at plants.

The fact that half the nation’s nuclear plants fail NRC security exercises is proof the current rules don’t go far enough, says Edwin Lyman, scientific director of the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute, an antinuclear group. “Most of the plants obey the regulations to the letter,” Lyman says. “But when the NRC starts testing, you find out even if you’re in compliance it’s not good enough.”

In the mock drills, three attackers armed with guns and an understanding of the plant’s hardware infiltrate the complex. If they “destroy” or bypass enough equipment to “create” a nuclear accident releasing radiation, the plant fails the test. If this were actually to happen, radioactive particles could be carried long distances, just as the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 spread radiation through much of Eastern Europe. At Chernobyl, firefighters and plant workers died within days, and in the next decade an estimated 32,000 people died of radiation-related illnesses linked to the disaster.

The Nuclear Energy Institute says the 50 percent failure rate is inaccurate because the NRC often conducts two drills over two days. If a plant’s security fails to stop a mock attack one day but succeeds the next, the NRC still counts the exercise as a failure, says Doug Walters, senior project manager for licensing at NEI. He admits that one reason plants pass the security test on the second day is that the NRC repeats the same test.

Under pressure from the industry, the NRC earlier this year stopped issuing grades for plants that fail the NRC security tests. That’s because so many plants were getting low marks under the NRC’s new enforcement model. “When applied to security exercises, the [new] process overestimated the significance of findings, leading to a higher level of NRC response than was warranted,” said an NRC press release. In other words, because the NRC believed the risk of a real terrorist attack was low, failure to prevent a mock attack was not so serious. “When you lay that against the rubble of New York and Washington…we think these people are operating in an insane and irresponsible manner,” says Dave Kraft, director of the Evanston-based Nuclear Energy Information Service.

Also infuriating to Kraft is the continuance of a pilot program that allows nuclear plants, rather than the NRC, to design and grade their own security exercises. The self-assessment program is being developed at 20 plants, including the Quad Cities nuclear station near Moline. When the NRC’s mock terrorists got inside the Exelon plant last May, they were able to simulate damage to two vital safety systems.

Walters argues that the new self-assessment program will be more effective than the NRC tests. “This is a program that relies on continual training, drills, and exercises, identifying weaknesses and putting those into the corrective action plan,” he says. “That’s done over a three-year period, and most likely at the end of the third year we’ll do an evaluative exercise that’s no different from the [NRC’s]. Contrast that to today, where the NRC comes in every eight years for two days and they run an exercise.”

The NRC will oversee the security tests and evaluate how well the industry grades itself. But critics say plants may simply teach to the test, which they write. “Under the self-assessment program, the NRC would solely be an observer,” says Lyman. “This raises the question, will the NRC have enough information, or will they just get a dog and pony show from the industry?”

After the September 11 attack, Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts called on the NRC to “halt once and for all the NRC’s misguided attempts to let the nuclear industry take over anti-terrorist planning activities.”

In a letter to the NRC, Markey, a member of the House committee that oversees the NRC, implored the agency to evaluate the threat of terrorism by land, air, and sea. “The NRC can no longer dismiss the probability of an airplane crashing into a nuclear power plant as essentially zero,” Markey wrote. “The NRC needs to engage in a wholesale review of the security at nuclear power plants, considering not just the threats from ground forces, but also previously unevaluated threats.”

The NRC says it will work with federal intelligence agencies to assess the probability of a nuclear plant becoming a terrorist target. It may then call for plants to strengthen barriers and security plans. But the NEI says plants cannot and should not be expected to protect against acts of war such as an aerial attack. “It is impossible for us to own antiaircraft guns,” says Mitch Singer of the NEI. “This would be the responsibility of the military.”

Some say nuclear power plants, as well as airports and commercial flights, should be guarded by federal police officers instead of by low-paid private security guards. Lyman notes another similarity between security at airports and nuclear power plants: Both have similar failure rates. The Department of Transportation has been trying to address security breaches, such as the sneaking of weapons through X-ray machines, for nearly five years, “and the airline industry challenged it every step,” Lyman says.

“It’s exactly the same at nuclear plants,” he adds. “The industry is involved heavily in trying to shape things the way they want them. Things slow to a crawl, and meanwhile the vulnerability is still there.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark Debernardi.