Nuclear Research Reactors Perilous, Says GAO Report

Threats to Reactor Safety Have Been Vastly Underestimated

The risks of a terrorist attack on a nuclear reactor on a college campus, and the potential consequences, have been underestimated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, congressional auditors say in a report.

The report, by the Government Accountability Office, said the commission had overruled expert contractors who thought differently, and misrepresented what the contractors had said.

Security requirements at the reactors have changed little since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to the auditors, even though many of the reactors still run on enriched uranium, which terrorists could convert into an atomic bomb. In contrast, the rules for civilian power plants have become much stricter, the report said.

An unclassified version of the audit found uncertainty “about whether NRC’s assessment reflects the full range of security risks and potential consequences of an attack on a research reactor.” The audit said that the rules “may need immediate strengthening” and that more parts of research reactors were probably vulnerable to damage than the commission assumed.

Research reactors typically are less than 1 percent as powerful as civilian power reactors, and they usually do not operate under pressure, so there is less energy available to spread radioactive material in case of attack or accident. They are used for scientific research, training and making medical isotopes.

But while power reactors are surrounded by fences, guard towers and open space, the research reactors are often in buildings on densely populated campuses. Some have added concrete Jersey barriers to protect against truck bombs, and better doors. But the “first responders” who would arrive if intruders set off an alarm are most likely to be the unarmed campus police officers, the audit said.

Government nuclear experts brought in by the commission paint a grimmer picture, the report said.

The nuclear commission’s estimates of vulnerability are “not supported” by experts from Sandia National Laboratories, Idaho National Laboratory and the Department of Homeland Security, the auditors said. The Idaho experts said that a terrorist attack could have “significant consequences” and a “high socio-economic impact,” the auditors said.

The nature of the outside experts’ concern is not made clear in the unclassified version of the report, but truck bombs or other bombings have been issues in the past. An article in Science and Global Security in 2003 pointed out that several research reactors had been destroyed by accidental runaway reactions, and that controls were in place to prevent those, though they could be disabled. The nuclear cores of research reactors are usually much more accessible than the cores of power reactors, the article pointed out, often sitting at the bottom of an open tank. Debris thrown into the tanks could clog cooling channels, it said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission asserted that it was the Government Accountability Office, not the commission, that had misrepresented the position of the outside experts, and made “unsupported assumptions.”

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who requested the audit, said of the commission: “They’re making assumptions and wishing the threats go away. It’s very disconcerting to me.”

“They don’t want to burden the licensees,” Shays said.

The commission licenses 33 research reactors, 26 of them to universities and colleges.