A four-month ABC News investigation found gaping security holes at many of the little-known nuclear research reactors operating on 25 college campuses across the country. Among the findings: unmanned guard booths, a guard who appeared to be asleep, unlocked building doors and, in a number of cases, guided tours that provided easy access to control rooms and reactor pools that hold radioactive fuel.
ABC News found none of the college reactors had metal detectors, and only two appear to have armed guards. Many of the schools permit vehicles in close proximity to the reactor buildings without inspection for explosives.
A spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation's campus research reactors, said that, based on the ABC News findings, the agency has opened an investigation into at least five of the schools.
"The NRC will not hesitate to take strong enforcement action should we find a violation," said Eliot B. Brenner, director of the NRC's Office of Public Affairs. The NRC is also reviewing the adequacy of reactor security plans at other schools as a result of the ABC News investigation, Brenner said.
But critics in Congress say that the ABC News findings reveal another area where the NRC has been slow to respond to potential terrorist threats.
"The security problems exposed here offer yet more evidence that, four years after 9/11, the NRC has not done nearly enough to secure our nation's nuclear facilities," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the NRC.
The campus nuclear research reactors pose an attractive target for suicide bombers, said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations.
"Nuclear research labs are attractive targets for terrorists determined to turn modern technology against us, and willing to die while doing so," Shays said. "It's imperative that our nuclear research facilities have the same stringent security demands that we require of other federal agencies."
ABC News shared its findings with the schools and the NRC in advance so that security lapses could be addressed before the findings were reported publicly.
The findings could be valuable in helping to correct any problems, said Roy Zimmerman, director of the Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response for the NRC.
ABC News conducted its investigation in conjunction with Carnegie Corporation of New York, which invited university deans at five schools to select two of their most promising journalism and government graduate students to work with the ABC News investigative unit for the summer.
The 10 students, Carnegie Fellows, traveled the country to test security at the 25 reactors, recording their findings with tourist cameras.
The NRC would not publicly identify the schools under investigation but NRC investigators told ABC News they were looking at possible breaches of security protocol at schools including University of Florida, University of Wisconsin, Purdue, Ohio State and Texas A&M. Four of the five schools under investigation use highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium to operate their reactors. (A full listing of the ABC News findings and university reactions accompanies this article.)