WTC attacks a wake-up call to nation's vulnerability

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   At 8:46 a.m., Sept. 11, a commercial jet hijacked by al-Qaida terrorists slammed into New York's World Trade Center. Moments later, as the world watched in disbelief, another jet raced from the sky toward certain death, tearing through the concrete-and-steel fabric of the financial world's twin tower.
   In Washington, the symbol of invincibility took a hit. Over Shanksville, Pa., passengers aboard Flight 93, believed diverted toward the nation's capital, refused to go down without a fight.
   For months, death lingered in the air at ground zero in New York. And for the first time in recent history America became "one nation under God, indivisible ..."
   Merchandisers rang up profits under a patriotic theme as American troops marched into the caves of al-Qaida. The specter of "vulnerability" reared its head. Talk of "bioterrorism" and "weapons of mass destruction" was served up at the dinner table along with the evening meal.
   In 1988, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden said he felt it was his "religious duty" to acquire weapons of mass destruction, according to the CIA. The agency more recently uncovered diagrams of nuclear weapons inside a suspected al-Qaida safehouse in Kabul.
   "The diagrams, while crude, describe essential components -- uranium and high explosives -- common to nuclear weapons," the CIA said in an unclassified report to Congress. Bin Laden also has pursued the development of chemical and biological weapons since 1990.
   Since Sept. 11, the nation has weathered an anthrax scare which highlighted America's susceptibility to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attacks.
   Through the advent of "homeland security," the nation has been steadily erecting defenses and preparing for the worst. But "the worst" could take many forms: from a suicide truck bomber to contaminated water supplies, to dirty bombs, to nerve agents, to a jet-fueled plane-turned-missile crashing into a spent-fuel pool at a strategically targeted nuclear plant.
   "Although the potential devastation from nuclear terrorism is high, we have no credible reporting on terrorists successfully acquiring nuclear weapons or sufficient material to make them," the CIA said, while at the same time admitting that "gaps in our reporting, however, make this an issue of ongoing concern."
   Following Sept. 11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued numerous safeguards and threat advisories to major licensees, and ordered them to upgrade security measures so they could respond effectively to a potential attack. The NRC requirements were to be in place by Aug. 31 unless the licensee was granted a time extension by the agency.
   Dr. Richard Meserve, chairman of the NRC, in a June 5 statement to the U.S. Senate's Committee on Environment and Public Works, said that U.S. nuclear facilities were "among the most hardened industrial facilities. But no existing nuclear facilities were specifically designed to withstand a deliberate, high-velocity, direct impact of a large commercial airliner."
   Meserve said a plant's ability to cope with an aircraft impact would depend on the plant's specific design. Installation of anti-aircraft defenses around the plant sites would present difficult command and control issues and could place plant workers and the public in jeopardy.
   Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns and operates nuclear plants at Watts Bar, Sequoyah and Browns Ferry, has been on a heightened state of security since Sept. 11, according to Gil Francis of TVA media relations.
   "I know we've added more personnel. Pinkerton Government Services provides our nuclear security inside the fence at our nuclear plants," he said. TVA Police, a group of federally commissioned and nationally accredited law-enforcement officers, patrol outside the area. TVA Police also work in cooperation with local law enforcement.
   Francis said the agency has done a number of things to improve security. "We're current on all NRC changes in terms of security, but we really can't get into specifics on some of those things that we're doing because, quite frankly, it would undermine our efforts.
   "We've increased patrols, we've increased checkpoints. At no point in the past could you just walk on a nuclear plant site. You just can't do that. You have to have security clearances, you have escorted access. In other words, even once you get your security clearance and they check your background, you are not alone. You have someone with you at all times when you're on that site. But that was in effect even before Sept. 11," Francis said. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, TVA has extended its boundaries.
   All TVA employees and Pinkerton guards must go through background checks, Francis said. "If you are gone from the plant site for a period of days -- and I'm not sure what the magic number is -- when you come back, you don't walk back through. You have to go back to the office and get cleared."
   Sept. 11 also has raised the prospect of terrorist sabotage of nuclear waste shipments. Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer advocate group Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nader, told a U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce's Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, that an analysis by the state of Nevada indicated that a successful terrorist attack on a transport cask using a common military device could cause 300 to 1,800 latent cancer fatalities. A state-of-the-art anti-tank weapon could cause from 3,000 to 18,000 latent cancer deaths and cost more than $17 billion to clean up, she said.
   According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, between October 1996 and September 2001, U.S. businesses have lost track of 1,495 pieces of equipment containing radioactive parts. Approximately 660 pieces have been recovered, while the rest remain missing.
   Most of the sources contain only small amounts of radioactive material, however, some contain potentially lethal amounts of radioactive cobalt or cesium which can be used to make "dirty bombs" that have the potential to spread radioactive contamination over large areas.