By Michael Ravnitzky ,

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was disrupted in the fall of 2005 leading up to the October 13, 2005 ABC Primetime one hour broadcast on allegations of lack of security at Test Reactor sites, most of which are at University campus locations.

The news piece featured interns who in various ways wheedled their way into these presumably secure sites.

The piece expressed concern that these sites contain highly enriched uranium that, in theory, could be used for nuclear weapons or terrorist devices. There is a program in place to substitute less dangerous nuclear cores in these test reactors nationally and also worldwide but the program is proceeding at a pace critics claim is too slow.

When the piece was scheduled to air, NRC management became extremely
concerned, based on emails between ABC and NRC liaison staff.  The NRC was very eager to get from ABC News all the raw footage shot by hidden cameras and kept asking for it.

The NRC also reminded ABC News of what it called an obscure Ohio law that made misrepresenting one's purpose for visiting to a public official a misdemeanor criminal office, deeming the campus security officers public officials.

Finally, the NRC warned ABC News that there are several types of restricted data associated with nuclear facilities, the disclosure of which even by journalists and broadcasters would be a criminal violation, broadly hinting that without careful review, the broadcast piece could violate the law.

If you would like to see the entire email exchange, write to the NRC and ask them for ALL the emails on this situation (not just the external ones exchanged with ABC) concerning the ABC Primetime piece on Research Test Reactor site safety during the time period June through October 2005. A journalist who asks as a representative of the news media can get those emails by sending a letter to:

Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Russell A. Nichols
FOIA/PA Officer
Washington, DC  20555

telephone number: (301) 415-7169

fax number: (301) 415-5130

The email exchanges are bound to be illuminating.

This is not criticism that the NRC handled the matter without proper care -- just that the internal email exchange is an illuminating look at how a difficult and very public press matter might be handled.

In the end, the NRC requested improved physical security plans at 13 test reactor locations, generating more than 3000 pages of security planning documents.

Here is an excerpt from a Sept 14, 2006 speech by the NRC Chairman:

But before I get to future nuclear workforce needs, and the jobs that will be out there for university nuclear program graduates, let¹s talk about security. Two dates loom large in the annals of TRTR security: September 11, 2001, and October 13, 2005. The former date is familiar to you, and perhaps the latter date is, as well. October 13, 2005 is the day on which the ABC television network devoted the entire hour of its Primetime Live program to examining research reactor security.

You may have seen the show. It was dramatic television ­ groups of attractive young journalism interns attempting to penetrate security at campus reactors around the country. It was complete with covert midnight visits, doors propped open with books and flirtatious behavior directed at university reactor personnel to get them to bend rules. During the show, ABC alleged that doors were left open or unchecked, guards were either absent or asleep, backpacks and packages were permitted in areas adjacent to reactors, individuals arriving unannounced were allowed tours and even to bring cameras inside, among other transgressions. Throughout the show, a member of a nuclear watchdog group repeatedly deplored the lapses and issued dire warnings of vulnerability to terrorists.

The NRC thoroughly investigated the ABC report and discovered one potential violation. Let me repeat that: one potential violation. We have addressed the one potential violation in accordance with our inspection and enforcement policy.

All licensees have responded to specific claims made in the program and their evaluations are consistent with our own ­ specifically that the ABC interns were only provided tours as allowed by preestablished procedures, which bags were only left in allowed areas or were searched, alarm systems were used as required and that surveillance by campus police and facility personnel were as required.

That is pretty much as we expected. You and I ­ as former head of a research and test reactor program myself ­ know that TRTR facilities have been covered by NRC security regulations for decades. After the September 11 attacks, the NRC advised all TRTR licensees to go on heightened levels of alert and licensees have since implemented additional security precautions.

Since 2001 many TRTR licencees have committed to taking stronger action to protect against radiological sabotage or theft, and those measures in many instances have been formalized by Confirmatory Action Letters from the NRC and verified through onsite inspections and evaluations.