In the five-plus decades of U.S. commercial nuclear power, general concern for how well a plant operates has shifted from monitoring environmental impact to ensuring site security.
That's both good and bad -- good because plant operations have become so routine after the Three Mile Island accident that nuclear stations seldom make headlines, and bad because the post-9/11 era has created 104 more potential targets (the number of nuclear reactors) for anti-American terrorists.
For that reason, the public, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp., which owns the Beaver Valley nuclear plant, have to take seriously the preliminary findings, released last Monday, on a recent security exercise.
The drill in April at the plant in Shippingport was a simulated terrorist attack with the use of laser tag weapons. But these drills are anything but fun and games. Today's nuclear plant security forces are paramilitary squads with the latest in weapons and training. FirstEnergy, which also owns the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo and the Perry plant northeast of Cleveland, has spent $132 million on security at its nuclear facilities since 2001 to meet NRC standards.
The NRC's early report on the Beaver Valley exercise cited a list of issues -- one "security shortcoming," five examples of performance below industry norms and six findings of "low security significance." None of them could be described due to security reasons. This was the second year in a row that a drill at Beaver Valley revealed a security shortcoming.
FirstEnergy said the chief problem uncovered by the mock attack was not security-related, but due to how the drill was managed. An NRC spokesman put it differently to the Post-Gazette's Don Hopey, saying "the plant is not vulnerable but did have an issue that warranted prompt attention." It was immediately corrected, with other measures put in place before the inspectors left. Thank goodness for that.
What's next is a meeting on Sept. 5 between the NRC and FirstEnergy to thoroughly review the details of the drill report. Let's hope the plant owner and federal regulators can agree on the steps needed to ensure effective security at Beaver Valley.
With more than 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste stored across the country at the nation's nuclear power plants, each site makes an inviting terrorist target. Plant security, at Beaver Valley and all other nuclear stations, is of paramount importance not just for the people who live downwind but for all Americans.