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Congressman claims security lax at nuclear plants

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A new report out from a long-time congressional critic of the nation's nuclear power industry raises the specter that lax security procedures could allow terrorists to be hired at nuclear power plants.

"Terrorists may now be employed at nuclear reactors in the U.S. just as terrorists enrolled at flight schools in the U.S.," says the report issued by Rep. Edward Markey, who since the early 1990s has pressed the industry to beef up security.

The Massachusetts Democrat made the claim after reviewing 100 pages worth of responses to questions about safety and security he had submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after the September 11 terrorists attacks. The NRC is the federal agency that oversees the nuclear industry.

"There is little comfort to be found in the agency's response to my questions," said Markey, who favors legislation to federalize security at nuclear reactors, a step the NRC opposes.

"Black hole after black hole is described and left unaddressed," said Markey, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The report quotes an NRC policy that requires plant owners to check with the FBI to ensure a U.S. citizen who is applying for a sensitive position does not have a criminal history. But for a person who is not a U.S. citizen, the NRC requires only that plant operators make a "best effort" to ensure the applicant does not have a criminal history in his native country or elsewhere.

A spokeswoman for the NRC said "efforts are made to validate the status of foreign-born employees" through checks with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But Rosetta Virgilio said she was not sure what else, if anything, is done to ensure an applicant does not have criminal ties.

But Richard Meserve, the NRC chairman, said other steps are taken to ensure applicants won't pose a threat.

"Every employee who is employed at a nuclear power plant is employed only after extensive screening," he said. "That means there is a psychological examination. Following the psychological examination there is a credit history, employment history, reference checks, military history if the person has served in the military as well as an FBI criminal records check based on fingerprints."

Meserve said there is not any particular screening focused on non-U.S. citizens.

"We do have foreign nationals who are employed at nuclear power plants. Germans or Canadians, or people from the United Kingdom, what have you. They don't necessarily all have to come from a dangerous country," he said.

The report also cites NRC responses that the agency does not know how many non-U.S. citizens work at nuclear plants, how much plant owners spend on security, nor how many security guards are employed at each of the nation's 103 operating reactors.

"Post-9/11, a nuclear safety agency that does not know -- and seems little interested in finding out -- the nationality of nuclear reactor workers or the level of resources being spent on security at these sensitive facilities is not doing its job," Markey said.

Again, the commission spokeswoman disputed Markey's assertion.

"It was strong before September 11 and was strengthened in the immediate aftermath," Virgilio said. "Licensees are at the highest level of security and are maintaining that state."

She said the agency is currently conducting a "top-to-bottom review" which has already led to new safeguards and will likely lead to others.




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