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Orange County | Dana Parsons

After Security Breaches at Nuclear Plant, Fallout Would Help

April 14, 2002|Dana Parsons

Want some terrifying bedtime reading?

Don't bother with Stephen King or Dean Koontz. Just curl up with a recent edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and let Daniel Hirsch scare you to death.

Hirsch, who heads an anti-nuclear group in Los Angeles, writes that many of the nation's nuclear reactors, including the two at the San Onofre plant in south Orange County, remain vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Some congressmen agree.

And why am I not particularly soothed when the federal agency that regulates the nuclear industry says all is well? Could it be because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that U.S. nuclear plants were built to withstand airplane impact, only to say a few days later they were referring only to small airplanes, not necessarily commercial jets?

It didn't improve Hirsch's mood that, when I spoke to him a couple of days ago, a federal review of the San Onofre plant had found two security breaches--both occurring after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The government said the breaches--two unescorted people trying to enter a control room and an inadequate inspection of a San Onofre firetruck near a protected area--were relatively minor.

Hirsch begs to differ.

"I was troubled, because they occurred within weeks of Sept. 11, at a time when the reactors were supposed to be at their highest state of alert," he says. "The entire safety of the reactors is based on access restrictions."

The maddening thing is that average citizens don't know whether what Hirsch writes and thinks is closer to fact or fiction.

Do we believe him or the government that regulates the industry?

Hirsch, whose group is called the Committee to Bridge the Gap, alternately laughs ruefully and laments as he describes the NRC's long-standing oversight of nuclear plants. "The problem is, the regulations for protecting nuclear power plants are a quarter-century old," he says. "They were established in the mid-1970s. They required only a security system capable of repelling an attack by three terrorists."

So when federal officials or plant operators say the facilities were designed with terrorists in mind, Hirsch isn't consoled.

The two post-Sept. 11 breaches only deepened his concern. "The one moment on Earth when you'd think they wouldn't have a problem ... [and] they were having these kind of lax controls ... makes me extremely nervous about the longer term."

Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, a longtime critic of the nuclear industry, alleged in a report two weeks ago that the nation's 100 or so commercial nuclear reactors remain vulnerable to terrorism, with little done to reduce the threat. Federal officials disagreed and said they'd offer a detailed rebuttal at a later date.

Hirsch wrote in the scientists' journal that security regulations in the nation's nuclear plants are "dismally inadequate and outmoded." And because of the damage that would result from the release of radioactivity from even one of San Onofre's reactors, the stakes are immense, Hirsch says.

"I've agonized over this issue for 15 years," he says. "To go public, [I thought] that might give ideas to the terrorists. For 15 years, through back channels, we've tried to get the NRC to fix this [security] problem."

Now, Hirsch says, it's common knowledge that terrorists know a lot about U.S. nuclear power plants and see them as potential targets.

In his article, Hirsch wrote, "The press has focused on the vulnerability of reactor containment buildings to airborne attack.... Excessive emphasis on the risk of air attack obscures the far larger and more frightening possibility of ground assault or the threat from insiders [on "soft targets" inside plants that protect against radioactive release].''

That's pretty scary, I tell him.

Turns out, he says, I scared him.

"I was nervous when you called me," he says. "I'm terrified every day I'm going to get a call from a reporter saying there has been a true attack on San Onofre."


Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to

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