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It has been nearly four years since 9/11 awakened the country to the possibility that nuclear power plants might be the next big target for the U.S.'s terrorist enemies. The country's reactors--deployed, as so many of them are, in areas with large civilian populations--have the potential to be weapons of mass destruction. The plants may be especially attractive to al-Qaeda because of the group's fondness for launching attacks that are increasingly spectacular. The vulnerability of the U.S. to terrorism was underscored when members of the 9/11 commission, formally disbanded last summer, resumed work as a nonprofit group last week and heard witnesses say the intelligence needed to prevent another major attack remained spotty.
Has the nuclear industry absorbed the lessons of 9/11 and made sufficient adjustments to the way plants are guarded? The DOE, which controls the 11 sites that house nuclear weapons and the materials used to build them, has significantly improved its standards. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees 103 reactors run by private operators at 64 sites across 31 states, says it has too. "What is in place right now is sufficient to give us confidence that these plants will be able to defend themselves," NRC chairman Nils Diaz tells TIME. But a tightly held NRC document reviewed by TIME raises serious questions about whether the government has set the bar too low and allowed plant operators to skimp on security. Many guards working in nuclear plants and some senior security experts working for the U.S. government say the defenses facilities rely on are too meager to thwart an assault by a force the size of the one al-Qaeda put together when it attacked the U.S. on 9/11--Mohammed Atta's band of 19 hijackers. "The NRC and the nuclear power industry," says a senior U.S. antiterrorism official, "are today where the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and airlines were on Sept. 10, 2001." Whereas the U.S. has spent $20 billion improving aviation security since 9/11, it has spent $1 billion enhancing nuclear-plant security.
That al-Qaeda has eyed U.S. reactors is known. U.S. officials say Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the captured architect of the 9/11 attacks, has told interrogators that his original plan was to have some of his pilots fly commandeered airplanes into nuclear power plants. According to the final report of the 9/11 commission, Atta, pilot of the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, "had considered targeting a nuclear facility he had seen during familiarization flights near New York." At the dawn of the Iraq war in 2003, Arizona National Guard troops were ordered to the nation's largest nuclear-reactor complex, the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station near Phoenix, after U.S. intelligence heard that sleeper cells of Iraqi terrorists might attack it.
Though the idea of suicidal pilots crashing planes into reactors provoked sensational headlines after 9/11, studies commissioned by the NRC and the nuclear industry concluded that the chances of an aerial attack producing a major release of radioactivity are low. The NRC believes the concrete-and-steel containment shielding most portions of a nuclear plant would withstand being hit by an airplane. Other experts, including a recent National Academy of Sciences (N.A.S.) panel, disagree, saying the particular design and vulnerabilities of each plant make such blanket assurances meaningless.