Terrorist Threat to Campus Reactors Cited

The risk of a terrorist attack on a nuclear research reactor on a college campus, and the potential consequences, have been underestimated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to Congressional auditors.

Their report complained that the commission had overrulede expert contractors who thought differently and misrepresented what the contractors said.

Security requirements at the research reactors has changed very little since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to the auditors, even though many of the reactors still run on enriched uranium, which terrorists could convert into fuel for an atomic bomb. In contrast, the rules for civilian power plants have become much stricter, according to the report by the Government Accountability Office.

An unclassified version of the audit found uncertainty “about whether N.R.C.’s assessment reflects the full range of security risks and potential consequences of an attack on a research reactor.” The rules, the audit said, “may need immediate strengthening,” and said that more parts of research reactors are probably vulnerable to damage than the commission assumes.

Research reactors typically are less than 1 percent as powerful as civilian electric plants, and they usually do not operate under pressure, so there is less energy available to spread radioactive material in case of attack or accident. They are used for scientific research, training and manufacture of medical isotopes.

But while power reactors are surrounded by fences, guard towers and open space, the research reactors are often located in buildings on densely populated campuses. Some have added concrete barriers to protect against truck bombs, and better doors. But the “first responders” who would arrive if intruders set off an alarm are likely to be unarmed campus police officers, the audit said.

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