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Report says NIST vulnerable to terrorist attacks

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Published on: Thursday, August 22, 2013

By Donna Broadway

GAITHERSBURG – The National Institute of Standards and Technology is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, according to a new report released by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project.

The 33-page report, called “Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack: Re-assessing the Current Design Basis Threat Approach,” found the facility remains unprotected against what it defines as a maximum credible terrorist attack, such as the one perpetrated on Sept. 11, 2001.

According to the study, the 560-acre site, only 25 miles north of Washington, contains a civilian nuclear research reactor filled with bomb-grade uranium. While the exact amount of uranium is housed in the facility is confidential, the study found there is enough uranium to build a bomb. The report also found that the facilities were susceptible to the theft of bomb-grade nuclear materials and sabotage attacks designed to cause a meltdown.

The authors of the report recommend federal lawmakers provide more protection at the facility, including an upgraded “design basis threat,” and provide the requisite additional security provided by the U.S. government.

“Less than two dozen miles from the White House and Capitol Hill, a nuclear reactor contains bomb-grade uranium, but it is not required to protect against even the lesser ‘design basis threat’ of terrorism. We know where the weak spots are when it comes to nuclear facilities, so it would be the height of irresponsibility to fail to take action now,” said Alan J. Kuperman, associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, co-author of the report and coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project.

The NIST released a statement that the facility is secured 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by federal police officers, and it takes the security of its nuclear research reactor very seriously. Security at the facility meets or exceeds all requirements of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, according to that statement.

David McIntyre, of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Public Affairs Office, said NIST is fully protected against attacks, and there has never been an attack on a nuclear reactor.

“The University of Texas report had a very rudimentary, crude graphic that showed a nuclear power plant and a mushroom cloud from an explosion, with an arrow leading from the plant to mushroom cloud with a big X through the arrow, and they were going to prevent that from happening. Well the physics aren’t there. A nuclear plant does not explode like that. It wouldn’t be a nuclear explosion. So I think reports like that are unnecessarily spreading fear and concern in order to gain notoriety for the writer of the report,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre also said the NRC often assesses the threat level and works to keep security protection up-to-date.

“As far as the threat of terrorist attacks, the federal government, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is always reassessing the threat level and taking any measures to alert people if we see some sort of threat emerging,” McIntyre said. “As I said, the facilities all have requirements for rigorous security protection and that is because they do contain some very important material in terms of benefits in generating the electricity and doing research, as in the case of NIST, but it does carry some risk. Those risks are balanced and assessed by us and other agencies, and these facilities are adequately protected.”

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