The nuclear energy industry is one of the nation’s safest industries. It is protected by multiple back-up safety systems, robust physical defenses and plant security forces with rigorous training. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the industry has continued to improve its safety systems to prepare for emerging threats, such the impact of a wide-bodied commercial airliner and cyber attacks. Each U.S. nuclear power plant is equipped with extensive security measures to protect the facility from intruders and to protect the public from the possibility of exposure to radioactive releases caused by acts of sabotage. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) calls nuclear power plants "among the best-protected private sector facilities in the nation."
Nuclear Plant Safety Features
Each nuclear plant design features reliable and diverse safety systems and strong physical barriers to prevent incidents that could pose a threat to public health and safety. The same features that safeguard the public and the environment from a radiation release also defend the reactor from outside interference.
The reactor is typically protected by about four feet of steel-reinforced concrete with a thick steel liner, and the reactor vessel is made of steel about 6 inches thick. Steel-reinforced concrete containment structures are designed to withstand the impact of many natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods, as well as airborne objects with a substantial force.
An independent study confirms that the primary structures of a nuclear plant would withstand the impact of a wide-bodied commercial airliner. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) conducted a state-of-the-art computer modeling study on the impact of a Boeing 767 crash. EPRI concluded that typical nuclear plant containment structures—as well as used fuel storage pools and steel and concrete fuel storage containers—would withstand the impact forces and shield the fuel.
Click to watch a video featuring Everett Redmond, NEI's director of nonproliferation and fuel cycle policy, discussing how reactor design ensures that nuclear plants operate safely.
Strict Federal Security Requirements
The NRC holds nuclear power plants to the highest security standards of any American industry. Since 2001, the agency has elevated nuclear plant security requirements numerous times by issuing orders and other formal requirements.
After September 2001, the nation’s nuclear power plants increased their security forces by one-third, to approximately 8,000 officers. In addition, they:
Extended and fortified security perimeters,
Increased patrols within security zones,
Installed new barriers to protect against vehicle bombs, and
Installed additional high-tech surveillance equipment.
The NRC closely coordinates security measures with other government agencies, including the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, the National Counterterrorism Center and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Infrastructure Protection Office. The NRC also has agreements in place with the Federal Aviation Administration and the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
Computer systems that help operate nuclear reactors and their safety equipment are isolated from the Internet to protect against outside intrusion. However, the nuclear industry takes measures to ensure that its nuclear plants are protected from cyber attacks.
Although the September 11 terrorist attacks had no cyber component, the nuclear energy industry took the initiative following those events to implement a cyber security program. The industry formed a task force, which developed comprehensive guidelines for protecting against cyber vulnerabilities. The NRC endorsed the industry guidelines in 2005. By May 2008, all operating nuclear plants had implemented the guidelines voluntarily.
The NRC security rule issued in 2009 required enhancements to cyber security at nuclear power plants. All companies that operate nuclear plants or seek to license new plants have developed and submitted plans for cyber security, including requirements pertaining to individuals who have electronic means to interfere with plant safety, security or emergency preparedness functions or critical equipment that supports those functions.