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Nuclear Power Plant Security
This fact sheet details the defense-in-depth philosophy used in the construction and operation of nuclear power plants, which provides high levels of protection for public health and safety.
The nuclear energy industry is one of the few industries whose security program is regulated by the federal government. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission holds nuclear power plants to the highest security standards of any American industry.
Nuclear plant security requirements are predicated on the need to protect the public from the possibility of exposure to radioactive releases caused by acts of sabotage, including cyberattacks. Intelligence information and incidents around the world are analyzed to ensure that plant protection regulations are updated to reflect potential threats.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NRC ordered substantial security enhancements at all nuclear power plants. A rule issued in 2009 contains requirements similar to those previously imposed by order, as well as new requirements that evolved from experience in implementing the orders and in preparing to license new reactors.
The NRC coordinates closely with other federal organizations. The agency coordinates with 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.
In its 2008 report to Congress on security, released July 10, 2009, the NRC said, “The commission is confident that nuclear power plants … continue to be among the best-protected private sector facilities in the nation.”
Nuclear Plant Security Measures
Security measures at the 104 operating nuclear plants include:
physical barriers and illuminated detection zones
approximately 8,000 well-trained and well-equipped armed security officers at 65 sites who are on duty shifts all day, every day
surveillance and patrols of the perimeter fence
intrusion detection aids (including several types of detection fields, closed-circuit television systems and alarm/alert devices)
bullet-resisting barriers to critical areas
a dedicated contingency response force.
Computer systems that help operate the reactors and safety equipment are isolated from the Internet to protect against outside intrusion.
New requirements added in 2009 include the explicit requirement to manage nuclear plant activities so as not to create any potentially adverse interactions with security. The 2009 rule also requires nuclear plants to have comprehensive cybersecurity programs and response procedures to address an aircraft threat or loss of large areas of the facility because of explosions and fire.
In addition, the rule imposed new requirements pertaining to individuals who have electronic means to interfere with plant safety, security or emergency preparedness. They include enhanced psychological assessments and information-sharing between reactor licensees.
Plant operators and the NRC inspect nuclear plant security measures and test them in drills and exercises to uncover any weakness.
All threats to plant physical security will be countered with dedicated, tactically trained, well-armed security officers who collectively determine the nature of a threat, assess its magnitude and take aggressive steps to deter the threat.
NRC Sets Basis for Nuclear Plant Security
The NRC’s security regulations are designed to ensure the industry’s security force can protect against a range of threats, including cyberattacks. The presumed goal of such an attack would be the release of radioactive material from the plant.
The threat against which the industry must defend—known as the “design basis threat”—is characterized as a suicidal, well-trained paramilitary force, armed with automatic weapons and explosives and intent on forcing its way into a nuclear power plant to commit radiological sabotage. Such a force may have the assistance of an “insider,” who could pass along information and help the attackers.
The NRC’s “design basis threat” provides a foundation for developing defensive response strategies that cover a variety of situations. The NRC determines the design basis threat using technical studies and information received from intelligence experts and federal law enforcement agencies. It is reviewed by the agency once a year.
Since 2001, the NRC has twice raised the threat level against which nuclear plants must provide protection. In doing so, the NRC has assumed an increased number of possible attackers and weapons capabilities.
Congress also responded to public concern over nuclear plant security by including in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 several provisions that increase security requirements or capabilities. As part of the bill, the NRC was directed to officially increase the scope of the design basis threat. It also requires plants to fingerprint and conduct background
checks of their employees.
The bill also allowed the NRC to authorize security officers to carry certain advanced weaponry. In addition, the bill increased federal penalties for sabotage and for bringing unauthorized weapons on to a nuclear power plant site.
Many industry security elements are considered “safeguards” information, which means they are controlled on a “need-to-know” basis. Clearly, plant protection capabilities and response strategy should be controlled and protected from public disclosure to avoid compromises that might benefit a potential adversary.
Nuclear Plants Have Robust Structures
The FBI considers security forces and infrastructure at nuclear power plants formidable and considers nuclear power plants difficult to penetrate. In addition to the extensive security at nuclear plants, the defense-in-depth features that protect the public from radiological hazard in the event of a reactor incident also protect the plant’s fuel and related safety systems from attempted sabotage. The design of each plant emphasizes the reliability of plant systems, redundancy and diversity of key safety systems, and other safety features to prevent incidents that could pose a threat to public health and safety.
Steel-reinforced concrete containment structures protect the reactor. Redundant safety and reactor shutdown systems have been designed to withstand the impact of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. Areas of the plant that house the reactor and used reactor fuel also would withstand the impact of a wide-body commercial aircraft, according to analyses by the NRC.
Plant personnel are trained in emergency procedures that would be used to keep the plant safe from a sabotage attempt.
Protecting Used Nuclear Fuel
Used nuclear fuel is protected by the same security force and electronic surveillance equipment as the rest of the plant. In addition, as noted above, areas of the plant that house used nuclear fuel would withstand the impact of a wide-body commercial aircraft.
Used nuclear fuel is large, heavy and highly radioactive. Handling it under any circumstances requires special equipment.
The used fuel—consisting of small ceramic pellets—is contained in metal fuel rods. The rods are grouped into bundles called assemblies. The average used fuel assembly is 14 feet long and weighs up to 1,600 pounds. Used fuel assemblies are stored in steel-lined concrete vaults filled with water or in robust concrete and steel containers—
each weighing more than 100 tons—in a separate, secured area.
Computer systems that help operate nuclear power plants and safety equipment are isolated from the Internet to protect against outside intrusion.
However, concern about cybersecurity is growing as society becomes increasingly reliant on computer technology. Potential threats range from viruses and worms to unauthorized access to protected data and systems. These and other cyber-related threats have the potential to damage or shut down systems, destroy valuable information or compromise privacy and security.
Although the 2001 terrorist attacks had no cyber component, the nuclear energy industry took the initiative following those events to implement a cybersecurity program for those digital assets needed to maintain nuclear safety and continuity of electric power.
The Nuclear Energy Institute formed a task force in 2002 to develop cybersecurity guidelines for the industry. The task force worked with the NRC and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to review the cybersecurity measures at four nuclear power plants and to test potential vulnerabilities.
The industry task force developed a comprehensive set of guidelines for companies operating nuclear power plants to develop and manage an effective program to protect against cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The NRC endorsed the industry guidelines in 2005. By May 2008, all 104 operating plants had implemented them voluntarily.
NRC Imposes New Requirements
The NRC security rule issued in 2009 required enhancements to cybersecurity at nuclear power plants. All companies that operate nuclear plants or seek to license new plants must develop and submit to the agency comprehensive plans for cybersecurity. The plans must encompass protection for digital computer and communication systems and networks associated with safety, security and emergency preparedness functions, as well as critical equipment that supports those functions.
Cybersecurity plans must include measures to:
ensure the capability for timely detection and response to cyberattacks
mitigate the consequences of such attacks
correct exploited vulnerabilities
restore the affected systems, networks and equipment.
The rule also imposed new requirements pertaining to individuals who have electronic means to interfere with plant safety, security or emergency preparedness. They include enhanced psychological assessments and information-sharing between reactor licensees.
Every company currently licensed to operate a nuclear power plant must submit a cybersecurity plan and implementation schedule for its reactors to the NRC by Nov. 23, 2009.
Industry Develops Template for Cybersecurity Plans
The industry developed a template for companies to use in developing and implementing cybersecurity plans under the NRC rule and conducted training in its use. Many of the plan’s features already have been implemented.
The key elements of this program are:
ongoing assessments of cybersecurity
evaluations to assess modifications and additions of digital components replacing analog assets
contingency and disaster recovery
periodic threat and vulnerability reviews as part of overall security drills.
The nuclear industry is briefed quarterly by the Department of Homeland Security on new potential cybersecurity threats, and the industry takes appropriate action to counter those threats.
NRC Security Oversight
The NRC provides regulatory oversight of nuclear power plant security through its routine inspection program, as well as “force-on-force” performance evaluations in which a specially trained mock adversary attacks the plant. The agency conducts a force-on-force exercise at each nuclear power plant at least once every three years.
The NRC has developed an online “security spotlight” that provides succinct information on improvements it has made
to nuclear plant security since 2001. The URL is
In the NRC’s 2008 report to Congress on its security inspection program, released July 10, 2009, the NRC said, “The commission is confident that nuclear power plants and Category I fuel cycle facilities continue to be among the best-protected private sector facilities in the nation.”
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Copyright 2013 Nuclear Energy Institute
Nuclear Energy Institute
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