US political leaders and agencies including the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) have reacted to threats of nuclear terrorism, real and anticipated, by calling for strongly increased vigilance and preparedness at the nation’s 103 nuclear power plants. And 13 of the 31 ‘nuclear’ states have ordered National Guardsmen into position at nuclear plant perimeters on at least a temporary basis. In Missouri and some other states National Guard patrols have been on duty at nuclear sites since September 11.

Security agencies warned of the vulnerability to terrorist attack of nuclear plants, but stressed that, to date, no specific threat has been received. Nevertheless several false alarms have hastened security measures. Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker ordered Army National Guard soldiers to patrol the state’s five nuclear power plants, including Exelon Nuclear’s Limerick generating station. Schweiker’s action came soon after incidents at two nuclear plants that caused airport closures and military jets to be scrambled. The first occurred at the Beaver Valley Power Station. Planes were grounded at Pittsburgh international airport and military jets were scrambled after a single-engine airplane violated the federal government’s 10-mile “no-fly” zone near the plant.

Shortly after, airports in Harrisburg and Lancaster were closed temporarily after the Nuclear Regulatory Ccommission said it had received information about a threat against the Three Mile Island nuclear plant at Harrisburg. Both incidents turned out to be false alarms, but the fear is that state police do not have enough firepower or personnel to stop a real attack. At present, visible deterrence and comfort value is the true purpose.

Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and vocal critic of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has asked President Bush to station National Guard units at all operating or decommissioned nuclear reactors to improve security. A spokesman for the president said decisions on the use of guardsmen were up to the states in question.

That alert was issued after the authorities received information about a new round of possible terrorist attacks. After the terrorist hijackings in September, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledged that nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand a deliberate jumbo jet crash. Officials are currently studying what might be done to protect against such an attack.

Tension increased when on October 29 a group of six men suspected of being terrorists were first arrested then released in a bizarre security services mix up. But not before they were found to be carrying pictures and plans of the Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida and the trans-Alaska pipeline.

The authorities took the threat seriously. At Crystal River, concrete road barricades were being put in place around the reactor, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a “threat advisory” suggesting that nuclear plants fortify their perimeters and call on the national guard for more manpower. The FAA closed the air space within 10 miles of plants and up to 18 000 feet. Further flight restrictions were imposed over downtown Chicago and Las Vegas as part of a security alert issued by the FBI when messages were intercepted between known al-Quaida members in Canada and Afghanistan referring to a big event ‘down-south’.