WASHINGTON – Security at America's nuclear reactors and airports is dangerously inadequate, with the defenses of the country's atomic facilities riddled with "black hole after black hole," according to a House committee report and a confidential Transportation Department memo.
"Terrorists may now be employed at nuclear reactors in the United States, just as terrorists enrolled in flight schools in the U.S.," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass, said in his report, "Security Gap: A Hard Look at Soft Spots in Our Civilian Nuclear Reactor Security."
Markey, a proponent of federalizing nuclear-power-plant safety, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not sufficiently improved security since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He said the nation's 86 most sensitive nuclear power plants fail to screen workers for terrorist ties and don't know how many foreign nationals they employ.
"As long as they have no criminal record in this country, Al Qaeda operatives are not required to pass any security check intended to find and expose terrorist links," he said.
The NRC does not know how many foreign nationals or security guards are employed at nuclear reactors, and does not require adequate background checks of nuclear reactor employees that would uncover terrorist ties. Sites continue to fail security exercises about half of the time.
Twenty-one U.S. nuclear reactors are located within 5 miles of an airport, but 96 percent of all U.S. reactors weren't designed to withstand a crash from even a small airplane.
"There is no security in place to protect from attack by aircraft," Markey told Fox News on Monday, "no security in place around [nuclear] waste product."
It took the NRC almost 6 months after Sept. 11 to require enhanced security at nuclear reactors, and has yet to begin a permanent revision of security regulations following the terrorist attacks.
"There is little comfort to be found in the agency's response to my questions," Markey said. "Black hole after black hole is described and left unaddressed. 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."
NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci declined to discuss the report's details, saying "we don't normally comment on press releases from members of Congress."
She told The Boston Globe that security employees at nuclear plants are fingerprinted, and that minimum staffing levels are included in security plans filed with the NRC.
Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said existing NRC-required background checks are "somewhat limited."
"I've worked in over 20 plants in the 17 years I was in the industry. Had I wanted to sabotage the plant, it wouldn't have been that difficult to do so," he said.
And the situation isn't any better at the nation's airports, according to a confidential Feb. 19 Transportation Department memo. The department ran 783 tests of security at 32 airports around the country and found it sorely lacking.
Inspector General Kenneth Mead found that in more than 70 percent of tests, investigators carried knives past screeners. Screeners didn't detect guns in 30 percent of tests and mock explosives in 60 percent. Investigators secretly boarded aircraft or got onto the tarmac nearly half the time.
Tests of the security system were conducted at 32 airports while the screening checkpoints were still primarily under the supervision of the airline industry, with some oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration. The new Transportation Security Administration took over responsibility for airline security Feb. 17.
Security administration spokesman Paul Turk said the White House requested the investigation.
"The idea was to get a realistic assessment of potential needs," he said.
"I would say it's astounding and pretty incredible, given the high state of security awareness we were under during that period," Reynold Hoover, a counterterrorism expert who conducts seminars on checkpoint screening, told the newspaper. "There really wasn't the change we thought there was after Sept. 11."
Former FAA security chief Billie Vincent said the report was not surprising, considering the checkpoints were staffed by the same low-paid, poorly trained screeners who were there before Sept. 11.
In addition, Vincent said, current equipment cannot detect explosives, nor can it detect many varieties of cutting tools.
"The technology at the screening points is not there," Vincent said. "The current metal detectors won't do the job. If you turn it high enough to detect that much metal, you will have an alarm on every person going through."
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency "took aggressive enforcement action any time there was a question about proper security" after Sept. 11.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.