Emergency Preparedness in Response to Terrorism

Emergency preparedness (EP) is a prudent measure to account for the very small chances of a serious reactor accident or a terrorist attack. Other measures that reduce the chance of a reactor accident include strong regulations and robust engineering. Terrorist threats may affect the chance of a reactor accident, although estimating that chance is not currently possible today with reasonable confidence.

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Impact of September 11, 2001, on Emergency Preparedness

The events of Sept. 11, 2001 changed the world. On that day, the NRC took immediate action by advising nuclear power plants to go the highest level of security — which they all promptly implemented. Shortly afterward, NRC and the industry reevaluated physical security for U.S. nuclear power plants. In February 2002, the NRC required all U.S. nuclear power plants to study plant designs, add additional security personnel, enhance physical protection features, improve EP, and provide additional training. Nuclear industry groups and Federal, State, and local government agencies helped promptly implement these measures. These groups also participated in drills and exercises to test new planning elements.

The NRC has also considered the threat of terrorism while reviewing the EP planning basis to ensure it continues to protect public health and safety. This review found nuclear plant EP remains strong, with improvements possible in areas such as communications, resource management, drill programs, and NRC guidance. The NRC has implemented new requirements covering these improvements.

Nuclear power plant design, construction and operation all contribute greatly to protecting public health and safety. Robust structures, such as containment buildings, protect the reactor. Safety systems, such as diesel generators to power pumps and other emergency equipment, are redundant and independent. These design features protect against both external hazards, such as tornadoes, hurricanes and hostile acts, and from nuclear accidents.

A nuclear power plant's physical security includes well-armed and well-trained security personnel who remain ready to respond to an attack 24-hours a day, seven-days a week. The sites are protected by sensitive intrusion detection equipment, fences, and barriers, and are monitored by cameras and security patrols. The NRC uses force-on-force exercises with trained mock adversaries to ensure nuclear power plant security personnel can implement many new security improvements. NRC security inspectors observe these exercises to ensure the licensee can implement security plans during a terrorist event. Additionally, routine NRC inspections ensure licensees comply with EP, security, and all other regulations.

The events of Sept. 11 also highlighted the need to re-examine the NRC's internal organization. The NRC created the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response (NSIR) in April 2002 to more effectively focus staff expertise in these areas. NSIR also hired experts in security with civilian and military experience. Within NSIR, the Division of Preparedness and Response (DPR) integrates EP with emergency response, increasing attention on activities that affect EP. DPR develops EP policies, regulations, programs, and guidelines for both currently licensed nuclear reactors and potential new nuclear reactors, as well as for certain materials licensees such as fuel cycle facilities.

The NRC responded to the changing security environment through an initiative to develop new regulations addressing the unique challenges of security events to existing EP programs. The 2011 EP rulemaking included regulations to require industry to conduct evaluated Hostile Action-Based EP full-participation exercises at all sites once every 8 years.

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Consideration of Potential Terrorist Activities with Respect to Emergency Preparedness

The NRC continues to examine nuclear power plant security and how well licensee programs protect public health and safety in the post-9/11 threat environment. The emergency preparedness (EP) planning basis covers both terrorist-based events and potential accidents, providing reasonable assurance the plans will protect public health and safety. EP plans have always considered a wide range of severe events that could release radioactive material.

The NRC has also analyzed spent fuel pool vulnerability, concluding the pools are robust structures that are difficult to damage. Even under conditions in which fuel in a pool is damaged, current analyses show the timing and magnitude of a potential release is covered by the EP planning basis. The NRC continues to evaluate a reasonable spectrum of how pool events might begin and the limitations of those events.

The NRC has also studied pools at permanently shut down (decommissioned) plants. The studies conclude, given how long the spent fuel has cooled off at those plants, that current decommissioning plant EP programs are adequate. The more time spent fuel remains in the pool, the longer it would take to overheat and potentially release radioactive material. Regardless of the spent fuel's time in the pool or how the fuel is arranged, the current analyses show that spent fuel heat-up time is long enough that the EP planning basis remains valid for spent fuel pool accident scenarios.

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Page Last Reviewed/Updated Friday, November 13, 2020