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9-11 In Focus: Are Post 9-11 Security Improvements Enough At Charlotte's Nuclear Plants?

A road entering McGuire Nuclear Station is blocked with cement barriers.

A road entering McGuire Nuclear Station is blocked with cement barriers. Two nuclear plants are located in the Charlotte area. Duke Energy's Catawba plant is across the state line in South Carolina. And the company's McGuire facility is just outside of Huntersville. In the 10 years since 9-11, security has been beefed up at those plants. That's clear. But depending on who you ask, those changes may or may not have gone far enough. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is the federal agency in charge of making sure the nation's nuclear plants are secure. Roger Hannah, a spokesman for the NRC, says to understand how safe plants are today, you have to understand how safe they were before the terrorist attacks of 2001. "Even prior to the events of 9-11-2001, US nuclear power plants were among the most robust and secure power plants in the country," Hannah says. But none the less, when 9-11 took place, the NRC looked again at nuclear plant security, this time through the lens of terrorism. And within four months of the attacks, the NRC mandated some changes. Those upgrades include beefed up security forces, more patrols, updated emergency plans and more scrutiny for those who want to enter the facility. What's the effect of all these added measures? "It's safer," says Duke Energy spokeswoman Valerie Patterson. "It's more secure. Our commitment is even stronger." Patterson says if Duke's nuclear sites were to come under attack, the company is prepared for the worst. "Our priority is to handle it as soon as possible," she says. "And we have plans in place and we know how to respond. We always prepare for the unexpected." Entry to McGuire Nuclear Station. Patterson says all of the 9-11 related security upgrades are in place at Duke's two local plants. But about a dozen nuclear plants across the country haven't made those changes. The NRC has granted those plants extensions. But spokesman Roger Hannah says those facilities are still secure. "Even the ones that may not have completed all of them have compensatory measures in place," Hannah says. "So the NRC is confident that all nuclear power plants are currently well protected and provide sufficient security." But not everyone is convinced. Ed Lyman is with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He says the fact that some plants still don't have all their 9-11 improvements in place - nearly 10 years later - reflects how seriously the nuclear industry and the NRC don't take the threat of terrorist attacks. "In our judgment, no, the mindset has not changed sufficiently," Lyman says of the nuclear industry and federal regulators. "There's still a belief that it can't happen here, complacency and overconfidence." Lyman says part of the reason some plants aren't up to speed on security is that it took six years for the NRC and the industry to finally agree on what 9-11 related changes needed to be made. And that delay he says, is evidence of companies like Duke fighting security improvements instead of embracing them. "In our view the industry's response to September 11th instead of 'What can we do as quickly as possible to reduce this threat?'," Lyman says. "Their response was 'How can we prevent the US government from imposing costly regulations?'" A good example of how much watchdogs like Lyman and the industry differ on the issue of security is their thinking on what could happen if terrorists were able to use a jetliner to attack a nuclear plant. Lyman has studied what might have happened in New York City if hijackers had flown a jet into the nearby Indian Point nuclear plant, instead of into the Twin Towers. He found there could have potentially been up to 500,000 cancer deaths over the long term resulting from the radiation exposure from such an attack. Charlotte residents might be alarmed at such numbers. But at Duke spokeswoman Valerie Patterson says a plane crashing into a nuclear plant doesn't pose a serious threat. "The studies that have been done since 9-11 indicate that there would be no radiological release from the containment building," she says. So who's right? When it comes to the jetliner issue and other terrorist matters, it's hard to say. Part of that's because there hasn't been a terrorist attack on a US nuclear plant to find out. Another challenge in knowing is that security plans are largely secret. Even industry critics acknowledge that is necessary. But people like Lyman think there's more the public can know without comprising security. But both the industry and the NRC say the same thing: Our plants are safe, so you'll have to trust us when we say they're secure. "I hope the public would have a level of confidence that the commitment and dedication we have in evaluating those safety programs and safety issues, is exactly the same as it is for security," the NRC's Hannah says. Ten years removed from 9-11, the impetus the terrorist attacks provided for security changes at US nuclear plants has ended. Now, those who live in places like Charlotte where nuclear plants are nearby, residents are left to hope those changes were enough.