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Category Archives: Nuclear Security

Watching Over a National Research Tool

Alexander Adams
Research and Test Reactor Licensing

NRC inspectors can find themselves most anywhere in the United States, but one of the facilities we oversee is just down the street. The Center for Neutron Research, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is only about 20 minutes from our headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.

nistneutronresearchfacilityThe Center is the largest research and test reactor we regulate, but large is a relative term – the Center’s reactor is 75 times smaller than the smallest U.S. commercial nuclear power plant. The reactor exists for only one purpose – to generate neutrons, pieces of atoms than can help researchers examine fantastically small details in many areas of science. The Center’s latest experiments have looked at materials that could improve oil and gas refining, and have examined biological cell wall behavior in real time.

As important a research tool as the Center is, it still has to operate safely. NRC inspectors check on the NIST facility at least twice annually to verify the reactor is operated safely and that only properly trained and licensed personnel run the reactor. Our ongoing reviews of the research reactor show that, even in the very unlikely case of the reactor’s systems failing during an accident, no effects are expected outside of the Center.

Security is another key factor in our oversight of the Center, and we inspect the facility’s security at least once every two years. NIST must follow our requirements to properly control access to the Center. Our security rules also keep fresh reactor fuel under strict control until it goes into the reactor, as well as keeping the reactor’s used fuel securely stored until it can be sent back to the Department of Energy.

Our security inspections at the Center show it has complied with the additional requirements the NRC imposed after the 9/11 attacks. In fact, the Center has worked with other federal agencies to add security features that go beyond our requirements. The bottom line is that used fuel is highly radioactive, very difficult to handle safely by untrained people, and very strong measures are in place to protect the facility and the material.

Security and Nuclear Power Plants: Robust and Significant

Robert Lewis
Director of Preparedness and Response

Security of the nation’s commercial nuclear facilities is a critical part of the NRC’s mission. In response to recent media stories about security securityat nuclear power plants, we want to reassure you that U.S. nuclear power plants are adequately protected against potential terrorist attacks. In fact, they are among the best-protected sector of our national infrastructure.

In the decade since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the NRC, and its licensed operators, acted to enhance security at the nation’s nuclear plants. While the plants are secure, robust structures designed and built to withstand a variety of natural and man-made enemies, we ordered additional measures. For example, we strengthened requirements related to physical barriers, access controls, and intrusion detection and surveillance systems, as well as the existing well-trained and armed security officers.

Specific security measures are considered “safeguards information” (a type of unclassified, yet sensitive information) and are not made public, for obvious reasons. The NRC can, however, describe these enhancements in general terms.

Each plant’s security plan is based on a Design Basis Threat, or DBT, set by the NRC. This is the maximum threat a private-sector entity can be expected to defend against. Details of the DBT are not public, but our regulations spell out the types of threats our licensees must prepare for. These include an assault by one or more determined and capable adversary forces attacking by land or water, truck bombs, boat bombs, insider threats and cyber attacks. The NRC requires each plant to test its security force annually, and the NRC also tests the security forces at each plant every three years in a sophisticated force-on-force inspection.

Security doesn’t stop at a plant’s boundary. The NRC requires licensees to coordinate with local law enforcement and emergency responders who can assist in the unlikely event of an attack. The NRC itself continuously coordinates with other federal agencies to assess the current terrorist threat and take whatever actions might be necessary to bolster security at nuclear plants. We work with the Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Homeland Security and North American Aerospace Defense Command to guard against September 11-style air attacks.

A recent report published by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) at the University of Texas used non-sensitive “open-source” information to assess the protections in place to counter terrorist threats to nuclear facilities in the United States, including potential threats to commercial nuclear power plants.

As an agency committed to the security of our nation’s nuclear power plants, we welcome recommendations for strengthening our oversight. However, we need to correct the record on two key points made in NPPP’s report. First, both new and existing reactors must mitigate against potential attacks using commercial aircraft; in fact our Aircraft Impact Assessment Rule requires design features for new plants to mitigate the effects of an airplane crash, and the NRC’s post-September 11 orders require existing plants to implement similar mitigating measures. Second, NRC regulations, based upon the DBT, do in fact require licensees to guard against waterborne attacks or explosives.

Force-on-Force or Was That a Gunfight at a Nuclear Power Plant?

Clay Johnson
Chief, Security Performance Evaluation Branch

They are dressed in camouflage, fit and well-trained, and they creep quietly toward the perimeter of a nuclear power plant under cover of darkness. Their realistic weapons reflect dully in the moonlight, but these weapons fire blank ammunition and lasers that record hits and misses.

Their goal? A particular target set within the plant which, if compromised, could impact the safety of the plant and the community that surrounds it. The target set this night? A closely guarded secret known only to the “armed intruders” and the NRC inspection team that includes active duty military members from the U.S. Special Operations Command.

The attacks will be repeated over the course of three days and nights so that different attack methods and various targets at each nuclear power plant are tested. In each scenario, the plant’s security personnel work to protect specific areas of the plant according to their facility’s individual security plan. Each plant is tested in this manner every three years.

These force-on-force inspections have been part of the NRC inspection regime since 1991, but they were significantly beefed up and the frequency increased to every three years after Sept. 11, 2001. They are designed to assess the plant’s ability to defend itself against the conditions put forth under the “design basis threat” or DBT. These inspections are in addition to the baseline security inspections performed by the NRC’s regional inspectors and the inspections done daily by the NRC’s resident inspectors. NRC security experts routinely review options for further enhancements to the program.

The details of what happens during a force-on-force inspection are not public due to the sensitive nature of security plans at the plants. If a deficiency is found during an inspection, the NRC inspectors stay on site until compensatory measures are put in place, and then the NRC reviews the plant’s long-term plan to rectify the problem, and may issue violations. These violations are only discussed in a general way with the public.

The “bad guys” are part of what is called the Composite Adversary Force and they are contracted by the nuclear industry to perform these mock attacks to NRC specifications. The plant knows the force-on-force will occur at a specific date for safety and logistical purposes and to provide time to coordinate two sets of security offices – one to participate in the inspection and one to maintain the security posture of the plant. The mock attacks are also preceded by significant planning and on-site tabletop drills conducted by the NRC inspection team.

These realistic and physically intensive exercises are but one vehicle by which the NRC ensures the country’s nuclear power plants and Category I fuel facilities are prepared and able to protect themselves. Meetings on possible additional enhancements to this inspection program will be announced in the future.

Cyber Security and the NRC – This Month and Every Month

The NRC is joining the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and others in support of the National Cyber Awareness Month’s Campaign to: Stop.Think.Connect.

But cyber security — defending against hackers, criminals, and cyber terrorists — is a year ‘round focus for us.

The NRC’s cyber security team includes technology and threat assessment experts who team with other federal agencies and the nuclear industry to evaluate and help resolve issues that could affect digital systems. Our regulations also require nuclear power plants to adhere to strict requirements to make sure computer and communication systems and networks are protected from cyber attacks.

For NRC employees, there is cyber security awareness training, including “phishing” tests to help users identify and respond appropriately to attempts to trick them into providing sensitive information. There are also agency-wide policy and standards for appropriate cyber security controls to protect important NRC information.

For October, we are paying special attention to cybersecurity in all aspects of our lives. As DHS says:

“Few of us need to be reminded of the impact cyberspace has on our lives. From the kitchen table to the classroom, from business transactions to essential government operations and services, cybersecurity is an issue that touches all of us. While increased connectivity has led to amazing transformations and global advances across society, it also has increased the importance and complexity of our shared risk. We all have an important role to play. Emerging cyber threats require engagement from the entire American community—from government and law enforcement to the private sector and most importantly, members of the public, to create a safe, secure, and resilient cyber environment.”

More information about DHS efforts can be found online. More information about the NRC and cyber security, can be found here.

Kathy Lyons-Burke
Senior IT Security Officer for Policy, Standards, and Training

Nuclear Regulators Security Conference Registration Now Open

While the NRC is responsible for licensing the nuclear material only in the U.S., we are also very active internationally – especially with helping other countries develop nuclear and radiological regulatory programs covering both safety and security.

In 2010, the NRC participated in the first international Nuclear Security Summit, convened by President Obama, which focused on how to better safeguard weapons-grade plutonium and uranium to prevent nuclear terrorism. The participating countries at the summit agreed to work cooperatively as an international community to advance nuclear security and advocate for strong nuclear security practices around the globe — with the NRC leading the effort for the U.S.

That summit was followed this year, in March, with a similar conference held in Korea. There, the U.S. committed to hosting the first-ever Nuclear Regulators Security Conference. That conference is scheduled for Dec. 4 through 6 in Rockville, Md. Its goal is to enhance awareness of the importance of comprehensive national regulatory security programs, and to build relationships between world-wide regulatory entities with responsibility for nuclear and radioactive materials security.

Topics at the conference will include:

• establishing and maintaining a strong, independent, legal and regulatory framework to protect and secure nuclear and radioactive materials;

• creating methodologies for design basis threats and threat assessments;

• best practices for information protection and cyber security;

• establishing programs to ensure personnel trustworthiness and reliability; and

• a special session on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) International Physical Protection Advisory Service missions.

Confirmed speakers include: John O. Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; Yukiya Amano, Director General, IAEA; and NRC Chairman Allison M. Macfarlane.

This conference is open to the public and free, but space is limited – and pre-registration is required.

Nancy Fragoyannis
Senior Level Advisor for Nonproliferation and International Nuclear Security

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