Oct. 12, 2005 -- 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.
Campuses Make Attractive Targets
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.)
"Highly enriched uranium that's vulnerable is an unacceptable threat to me, and to American citizens everywhere," said professor Graham T. Allison of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. "We're as vulnerable as the weakest link in the chain," he said. Allison advised ABC News on the project, as he had done on two previous ABC News investigative reports dealing with nuclear security.
Threat of Sabotage
Nuclear safety experts say there is significant threat of sabotage, even at the facilities using low-enriched uranium.
In the case of sabotage, a facility could, in effect, be turned into a so-called dirty bomb. A dirty bomb uses conventional explosives, such as dynamite, to spread radioactive material. The greater the amount of radioactive material dispersed, the greater the potential danger to the surrounding community.
"Explosive material plus radioactive material equals dirty bomb," Allison said.
Most of the college reactors were built during the Cold War in an effort to demonstrate the peaceful uses of nuclear power. While smaller and less powerful than commercial nuclear power plants, the college reactors are considered a risk, given their radioactive material and location on crowded campuses, often in suburban or urban areas.
"Research reactors aren't required to be protected against sabotage in the same kinds of ways that power reactors are," said Matthew Bunn of Harvard University, former adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "Security costs money and if you actually imposed serious security requirements on them, many of them would probably end up shutting down."
At Florida, Wisconsin, Purdue and Ohio State, Carnegie Fellows were able to gain access to high-security areas with no background checks, carrying large tote bags that were not inspected before they entered the reactor area. School officials said they doubted their reactors posed any risk to the nearby community due to their small size and low amount of radioactive material.
Citing the structural design and shielding of the reactor facilities as well as safety and security measures in place, Roy Zimmerman of the NRC wrote in a letter to ABC News that even if a sabotage attack were attempted against one of the university reactors, "the potential for significant radiation-related health effects to the public is highly unlikely."
At University of Florida, Carnegie Fellows showed up unannounced and were taken through three locked doors and given a full tour of the reactor and the control room by the reactor director. Their bags, which were not searched, were left in an office connected to the reactor room.
"He became our key. And we were able to get into all these rooms through him," said Tamika Thompson, a Carnegie Fellow who recently received her master's degree in journalism from the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "If we were terrorists, we wouldn't need to have him let down his guard, he would be doing the same thing at the end of a gun barrel."
Surprisingly Easy Access
Nuclear safety advocates consider the surprisingly easy access to control rooms and reactor pools a concern.
"A terrorist with a little bit of explosives in a backpack like your students, would be able to release a vast amount of radioactivity in a very populated area," said Dan Hirsch, the head of a nuclear watchdog group called Committee to Bridge the Gap. "Bin Laden would love to do something like that."
At Texas A&M, Carnegie Fellows were able to join a guided tour with no background checks and without showing any ID. The guide informed the tour group that the reactor had "like no guards and stuff." Texas A&M says it has since changed its policy, requiring a background check a week in advance for anyone seeking entry to its nuclear reactor.
At MIT, Carnegie Fellows were able to obtain a sensitive reactor operating schedule and floor plans from Internet sites and the MIT library. NRC investigators said they were investigating why such information was publicly available. The ABC News investigation also found that a vehicle could stop, unchallenged, on a dirt road within 50 feet of the reactor building. An ABC News producer went unchallenged as he drove down the road in a large rental truck and stopped next to the reactor.
"It's bad security and we can basically blow it," said Ronald E. Timm, a former security analyst for the Department of Energy who viewed the ABC News taped findings. "The truck is the real threat. You want to make sure the truck stays away 250 feet minimum."
MIT says an independent study indicated the reactor, the second most powerful college nuclear reactor in the country, could withstand a large truck bomb.
Advocates Call for Improved Security
The ABC News findings renewed calls by nuclear safety advocates to either vastly improve security at the college nuclear reactors or close them. A federal government plan to convert the eight reactors using highly enriched uranium to low-enriched material is not expected to be complete until 2014. The plan was first proposed in 1982, but has been slowed by lack of funding.
"Wherever there's highly enriched uranium, those facilities should be adequately secured," said Allison. What ABC News found "doesn't meet that test," he said. "That's what I think is the bottom line of this story."
The ABC News project was part of a Carnegie Corporation of New York initiative in journalism education. The five schools who selected students for the project were: the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism; Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism; Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government; Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication.
Senior Producer Rhonda Schwartz and Producers Jill Rackmill and Maddy Sauer contributed to this story.