This week's document:
Every Friday, POGO will strive to make one document available that we or others have obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), especially documents that have not previously been posted online. Some of these documents will be more important than others, some may only be of historical interest— although relevance is in the eye of the beholder. POGO is doing this to highlight the importance of open government and FOIA throughout the year.
By NICK SCHWELLENBACH
Mohammed Atta, the Al Qaeda terrorist who piloted American Airlines Flight 11, which struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, "considered targeting a nuclear facility during familiarization flights near New York," according to the 9/11 Commission report. It is widely believed that this "nuclear facility" is Indian Point Energy Center, which is 38 miles north of New York City.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is responsible for regulating America's nuclear power industry, a responsibility that includes overseeing the nuclear industry's security and safety measures. According to an NRC Office of Inspector General (OIG) document POGO obtained via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, questions have been raised about the methodology NRC used for assessing the impact of large commercial aircraft on new nuclear power plants:
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG), U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), initiated this investigation based on a proactive initiative to identify instances where it appeared that NRC might not have followed agency processes regarding significant regulatory matters. At the time this investigation was initiated, the NRC was considering whether the Riera methodology was an appropriate tool for new reactor applicants to use to assess the potential effects of the impact of a large commercial aircraft on new nuclear power plants. OIG reviewed whether or not the NRC followed established procedures and processes regarding the appropriateness of using the Riera methodology for aircraft impact analysis.
Additionally, during the investigation, OIG identified information that suggested NRC may have inappropriately released information to licensees by providing them with data that could be reverse engineered using calculations from the Riera methodology to reveal classified information. Therefore, OIG reviewed whether or not the NRC appropriately handled Riera-related information in accordance with the NRC information security process.
OIG found that the NRC followed its processes in determining that the Riera methodology is an acceptable method to evaluate aircraft impacts on new nuclear power plant structures, and that the NRC did not release classified information related to the Riera methodology, it is recommended that this investigation be closed to the tiles of this office.
The document does note concerns raised by some experts, although it says they have been addressed:
OIG interviewed Sved Ali, Senior Technical, and Richard P. Croteau, Deputy Director, both from the Division of Engineering, Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research. Both stated that the Riera methodology for evaluating aircraft impacts on nuclear plant structures is only one piece of the overall security treatment of aircraft impacts. Ali stated that while there are limitations in the use of the Riera methodology, NRC addressed these limitations by increasing the NRC provided force time-history curve by a factor of 20 percent to account for the limitations and uncertainties.
Yet, questions have been raised about the adequacy of the NRC OIG’s inquiry itself. ProPublica reported earlier this week on concerns raised by two former NRC OIG employees that the NRC OIG is not as aggressive and as effective as it used to be. The NRC OIG document POGO is making available was cited as an example in the ProPublica article:
The former [NRC OIG] employee told ProPublica that the OIG's office had dropped an inquiry into whether the NRC could accurately predict the damage to a plant from an airplane crash, and [former NRC OIG employee George] Mulley confirmed his account, saying the office received a tip in 2007 that the NRC was using an outdated method.
Because a wrong prediction could lead to insufficient protection for the plants, the inspector general's office opened an investigation, Mulley said. "We went to several experts who said that thing is antiquated, you can't use it," he said.
Mulley said that the NRC's experts insisted that their method was accurate. He said the aim of the investigation was not to prove that the NRC experts were wrong but to show there was a dispute and question whether the NRC should update its predictions.
"In my mind, the OIG was not going to resolve it," he said. "It raised a valid question."
The 2001 terrorist attacks drew attention to the potential hazard of an aircraft crash for nuclear plants, and afterward the NRC and nuclear industry examined whether new precautions were needed.
The main industry trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, commissioned studies that showed U.S. plants could sustain a direct hit from a modern airliner without any radiation release.
Following 9/11, the NRC adopted a rule requiring nuclear operators to take steps to minimize possible damage from major natural disasters or an aircraft crash. Two years ago, the commission required new licensees to assess whether their reactors could withstand an airliner crash.
Eliot Brenner, an NRC spokesman, said the agency's method of evaluating the risk to plants has been thoroughly checked and relies on "realistic threat parameters."
McMillan said that OIG completed its investigation into the crash prediction issue and that the case was "closed to the file," meaning that no report was issued.
The decision to forgo a report usually means that the inspector general found no public safety concerns. McMillan declined to comment on the report or to describe any conclusions. He said it was available only through a Freedom of Information Act request, which ProPublica filed today.
Nick Schwellenbach is POGO's Director of Investigations.