NRC updates terrorism regulations

31 January 2007

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has updated its Design Basis Threat (DBT) rule on radiological sabotage at power plants to cover attacks from land, water and the internet but not air.

In order to hold a licence to operate a nuclear power plant in the USA, a company would have to be able to show the NRC that plant design and staff action could "defend with high assurance" against attack by well trained and dedicated groups. To address the possibility of suicide attacks, the new ruling adds the words "individuals willing to kill or be killed."

In addition to attackers approaching on foot or using off-road vehicles, the ruling also adds that an assualt team using a water vehicle to reach a sensitive part of a nuclear plant must also be repelled.

The DBT now specifies that licencees would also have to be prepared to manage "diversionary actions by a force capable of operating as one or more teams, attacking from one or more entry forces." Another provision requires readyness for attempts to disable electronic safety systems by electronic or computer attack.

NRC's chair, Dale Klein, said "This is an important piece, but only one piece of a broader effort to enhance nuclear power plant security. Overall we are taking a multi-faceted approach to security enhancements in this post 9/11 environment, and looking at how best to secure existing nuclear power plants and how to incorporate security enhancements into design features of new reactors that may be built in coming years."

The changes are to the Design Basis Threat rule, which describes the approximate size and attributes of the threat that licensees must defend against. A separate DBT covers theft of nuclear material. Any new plants built in the USA would have to provide for these defensive capabilities.

However, NRC resisted calls to include requirements for licensees to defend or protect against the deliberate crashing of large aircraft and to manage groups of 19 attackers - the number thought to have participated in the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Explaining why NRC had decided that the "active protection against airborne threats is addressed by other federal organizations, including the military," Klein said nuclear plants are "inherently robust structures that provide adequate protection in a hypothetical attack by an airplane."

All the USA's power reactors are surrounded by very thick reinforced concrete containment structures capable of withstanding any possible internal forces while keeping radioactive material inside. Plant designers and operators are confident the containment structures would also withstand very great external impacts.

Further information

US Nuclear Regulatory Commission

WNA's Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors information paper

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