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Nuclear security, Wackenhut style

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission was created three decades ago to oversee, as the agency's own publications suggest, "the potential hazards involved in using radioactive materials." Given the alarming discovery that al-Qaida operatives possessed drawings of a New York nuclear power plant, that responsibility has taken on a new dimension since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Just as alarming, the NRC has ceded much of its security oversight to a company, Wackenhut Corp., that already is paid to guard nearly half the nation's nuclear reactors.

As Danielle Brian, director of the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight, observes in a letter to the commission: "This is more than a case of the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. It is not an apparent conflict of interest _ but a blatant conflict of interest."

The contract is also a frightful excursion into privatized homeland security. The NRC long has known of the security vulnerabilities at power plants, and the industry generally has fought more stringent requirements. Yet when a congressional report uncovered shortcomings in the live exercises that were used to test security forces at the plants, the NRC turned to the Nuclear Energy Institute _ the industry's lobbying group _ for a solution. In June, NEI hired Wackenhut.

The most obvious conflict _ that the company would tip off its own security officers to the type of "attack" it was planning _ is more than a conspiracy theory. In January, the Energy Department's inspector general accused Wackenhut of precisely such behavior in an exercise designed to test security at a nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The report said Wackenhut security officers in Oak Ridge were told the specific targets to be attacked and the types of diversionary tactics that would be used. It also claimed "compelling" evidence that such practices had existed for nearly 20 years.

U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who has been a persistent congressional watchdog on nuclear plant safety, has demanded that the NRC take over the security attack exercises. If the commission won't listen, then Congress may need to speak with the force of law.

"The only way to be certain that the . . . exercises provide an objective assessment of the adequacy of security at nuclear reactors is to have the mock terrorist team paid for by the commission," Markey wrote the agency last month, "and have it consist of individuals trained in terrorist tactics that do not have pre-existing ties to any company that currently provides security services to nuclear reactors."

Markey's prescription amounts only to common sense, which is what makes the NRC's actions all the more indefensible. These are exercises designed to protect Americans from terrorist-inflicted nuclear disaster, yet the NRC has put Wackenhut in charge.

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