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In any case, the NRC does not require plant operators to defend against air attacks. A California antinuclear group, the Committee to Bridge the Gap, recently asked the NRC to order that shields of I-beams and steel cables be built around nuclear plants to stop airplanes from crashing into them. Antiaircraft batteries and the troops to operate them would also help but could pose hazards to innocent aircraft drifting off course. NRC officials say the likelihood of installing missiles or shields is virtually nil. The agency believes the place to thwart an aerial-attack plot is at the airport, not at the plant.
Yet terrorists may not need a dramatic skyborne attack to get the job done. They could take over a plant on foot. The key to understanding how the NRC has prepared for such an event is a standard called the design-basis threat, or DBT. The DBT is the regulatory worst-case scenario, the largest threat the NRC requires plants to train its guards to defeat.
Before 9/11, the agency required plants to be able to thwart an attack by little more than an armed gang--three outsiders equipped with handheld automatic weapons and aided by a confederate working inside the plant. After 9/11, when al-Qaeda showed the ability to produce 19 operatives for a suicide mission on a single day, some security specialists anticipated a significant hike in the DBT. But the number of attackers in the revised DBT is less than double the old figure and a fraction of the size of the 9/11 group. (The NRC regards the exact number as an official secret.) "The NRC has taken only baby steps to improve security at the nation's nuclear plants," Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, told TIME last week.
And if al-Qaeda sent 19 or so terrorists to take over a nuclear plant? "I don't think they could handle a 9/11-size attack," says David Orrik, a senior NRC official who retired in February after a 20-year career probing power-plant vulnerabilities. The guards themselves have doubts. "These guys are coming in to die. They know they're not leaving," says a veteran guard at a U.S. nuclear power plant. "Our training has increased, but I don't think it's increased enough to deal with that." A guard at another plant agrees. "We don't have the weapons or training to stop an attack of that magnitude," he says. "Everyone feels that way. It's a consensus of opinion."
One limitation is the number of guards. The total protecting the nation's nuclear plants is 8,000, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry's lobbying arm. Numbers at specific locations aren't available, but that works out to roughly 80 per reactor. Broken down into four shifts, that's an average of 20 guards available to work at any one time. U.S. security officials at the Pentagon and the DOE say that is too small a number to take on a motivated group of suicidal terrorists who probably would be outfitted with weapons deadlier than the rifles used by guards.