Nuclear Power Plants Vulnerable to Attack, Former CIA Officer Says

By Matthew Harwood

The United States is woefully unprepared to protect its nuclear power plants from a terrorist attack, a former CIA officer divulged on yesterday.

Charles S. Faddis, the former head of the CIA's unit on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, writes that he investigated security measures at many U.S. nuclear power plants during research for a book on the state of U.S homeland security. He found them wanting. His call to secure these sites comes after President Barack Obama guaranteed $8 billion in government loans to a company to construct two new nuclear power plants in Georgia.

"[B]efore we start building reactors we need to address another urgent matter," he writes. "We need to make current reactors secure."

A terrorist attack against a nuclear power plant isn't a theoretical vulnerability, Faddis, the author of "Willful Neglect: The Dangerous Illusion of Homeland Security," explains. Last month, Yemen detained a Somali-American man in a roundup of suspected al Qaeda militants. New Jersey-native Sharif Mobley subsequently came to the attention of the U.S. media last week when he shot and killed a hospital guard in an escape attempt in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a. Prior to leaving the United States for Yemen, Mobley worked at three different nuclear power plants from 2002 to 2008, the Daily News reports. Faddis also reminds readers that 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed originally wanted to crash airliners into nuclear power plants as part of the 9-11 terrorist operation.

A chief problem, writes Faddis, is how nuclear power plants utilize and treat private security guards who protect its facilities.

After 9-11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) increased the amount of private security guards nuclear plants had to have on shift to secure the facility. Faddis writes that, on average, most plants now field 20 private security guards per shift, up from five to ten mandated by the NRC before 9-11. Considering the damage a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant could do, he finds these numbers significantly too low to adequately protect the perimeter of such large facilities.

But Faddis' real gripe is with how security guards at nuclear power plants are hired and trained, which ensures guards cannot successfully defend such a prime target from a sophisticated terrorist attack.

These guards are grossly underpaid. In many cases, they make less than the janitors at the facilities in question. They train with their weapons no more than two to three times a year. Some of them are prior military and have combat experience.

Many others are hired off the street and given less than a week's worth of training before they begin to stand post. Much of that week of training is consumed with administrative matters, which have nothing to do with learning how to repel a terrorist attack.

Morale among the guards at nuclear power plants is chronically low. I was told by many individuals during my research that it was common to hear discussions among guards about where they would hide if there were an attack. (My emphasis)

Faddis writes that even when private security guards are put through attack scenarios that handicap terrorist forces—no rocket launchers or machine guns—guards fail to repel the attack at least half the time. Furthermore, terrorists would only need a basic understanding of plant operations to cause a nuclear meltdown.

The vulnerability is clear to Faddis. "Before we move ahead with any new nuclear power plants, let's attend to unfinished business and fix security at the ones we have."

(For more examples of less than stellar security guard work at nuclear power plants, see "Sleeping on the Job" from Oct. 12, 2007)

♦ Photo of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant by emdot/Flickr


Biological Weapons With Targets?

Wow. I just read the "Sleeping On The Job" article, and it's scary to think that security could be neglected to that degree. (especially in a post 9/11 world) I guess that I always just assumed that nuclear power plants were treated like missile silos. You know, all super high level security and a ton of surveillance. It would appear that I was wrong, and you weren't kidding. We are certainly going to have to address these safety concerns, before we even consider building MORE power plants. If issues like disaster recovery, hazardous material containment, and business continuity are not dealt with, we might as well be building biological weapons with targets on them. It's like my grandmother always told me. You have to be a good steward of the things you have already been entrusted with, before you can expect to receive more. I find that exceptionally fitting in this case.

My husband works for a

My husband works for a nuclear power plant as well as his brother (upper management in security, and former Secret Service).  I know many of the security workers.  They are paid well, carry m16's and most of them are from the military or police.  The reason that the "janitors" make more than them is that they need to be highly qualified.  They are mopping floors and cleaning up contaminated material.  They all have college degrees.  Every day the employees (my husband is an operator) go through a metal detector, bomb sniffer, have the cars checked, and their bags are scanned.  Every year their credit reports are run and they go through a physical.  I am not worried with the security of the plants.  The towers are constructed to be safe even with a plane flying into them.  I am more worried about chemical warfare and the safety of our foods from other countries. 


How would terrorist attack nuclear power plants anyway? The only way they could do that is to straight up drive a convoy of soldiers right through the front door, or crash a plane into it. Either way the only way to protect it is to have military personel on sight at all times. You still won't be able to stop a plane crashing into it. This is why nuclear power plants need emergency shut off mechanisms. This way if it is attacked, the damage will be minimal. Nothing is completely safe from a terrorist attack. If they want to destroy it bad enough, they more than likely will. I will have to admit, we have done some impressive work stopping a number of attacks since 9-11.

My husband is a nuclear

My husband is a nuclear operator...he says they can even fly a plane into it and it will be ok.  And any simple issue (off water pressure) will trip the plant and shut it down...they do have emergency shut off.  There are plenty other things I worry about with terrorism!  And you are right, we have done some impressive work!

food for thought

I am a big believer in the necessity for energy independence. I accept that we will all have to make some compromises in achieving that goal. I am willing to consider that nuclear power may have to be one piece of the plan we put together for how to break ourselves free from our dependence on foreign oil. I would submit, however, that before we start building reactors we need to address another urgent matter. We need to make current reactors secure. And I can't but agree with the author of the article I've recently read found by shared files site saying that we have neglected this issue for too long. It needs to be addressed, and the decision to push the building of reactors simply adds urgency. Before we move ahead with any new nuclear power plants, let's attend to unfinished business and fix security at the ones we have.

Interesting that nobody

Interesting that nobody mentioned the massive solar flare that scientists project that affect the land in 2012-2013. There was less in 1989 than in several large short out transformers and disrupted the power grid in Canada and provided some great insight into the aurora borealis. A previous solar flare magnitude is expected to hit next year was in 1859. Not a single computer or phone system has been compromised (yes, there was none), but started clicking of telegraph keys themselves and several telegraph lines actually caught fire. If this outbreak is approaching the magnitude of schedule, the network of U.S. power is expected to be vulnerable as there is a shortage of large transformers to replace the number that is expected to be fried. Design is not prepared to meet the cooling needs of a nuclear power plant outage of long duration, but guess what? Costs money. By the time the utility owners and politicians talk about it, vote on a couple of times, and perhaps even funding, it may be too late to really put into practice. So for entertainment after the batteries run out against Gieger, we can go out on a clear night and see the aurora borealis ...

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