Shortly after the horrors of 9/11, a curious package landed on Dave Lochbaum's desk.
It was flat but heavy. Inside the bubble pack was a battered steel plate, blasted with dents and holes from semiautomatic weapons fire. Each pockmark and perforation was carefully labeled -- by hand, in permanent ink -- with the type of ammunition used to produce it.
Security forces at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California and nuclear plants nationwide had increased their firepower to take on a more formidable terrorist threat. The steel plate, sent by a San Onofre security manager, graphically illustrated what Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer, considered a potentially devastating, increased risk:
More powerful ammunition meant to protect nuclear reactors was capable of piercing control panels and critical piping.
The concern doesn't appear to have been publicly disclosed at the time, but it resurfaced recently after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed nuclear security forces to override state and local gun control laws and possess high-powered weaponry that would otherwise be banned.
Government documents -- provided by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit watchdog that keeps a critical eye on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C. -- offer a rare glimpse into efforts to secure America's nuclear power plants that occur out of the public eye and the controversies that can simmer behind the scenes.
Critics maintain that not enough is being done to protect plants and the public. Their issue is not whether those guarding nuclear plants should have high-powered weaponry, but about how much additional security training and hardening of facilities should be required to reduce the risk of collateral damage.
An accidental discharge, friendly fire or all-out firefight during a terrorist attack could potentially cripple a working reactor and release dangerous radiation, experts said.
Risks are different at shuttered plants like San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station because there's no reactor core to melt down. But millions of pounds of nuclear waste remain on site, cooled and protected by intricate technologies that sit beyond the thick containment domes.
The NRC has allowed San Onofre to dial back its emergency plans because it no longer splits atoms, a move that many critics opposed. Operating nuclear plants must work up detailed responses to four levels of emergency, but San Onofre owner Southern California Edison no longer has to prepare for the worst two.
Nuclear power plant security is a nationwide concern. Nearly one-third of Americans -- 96 million -- live within 50 miles of such facilities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the introduction of "bigger and badder weapons" at nuclear plants recalls the unanticipated consequences of ocean-liner safety improvements after the Titanic disaster in 1912.
In 1915, the Great Lakes passenger steamer SS Eastland, which had been prone to listing, was retrofitted with a complete set of lifeboats and crank systems to lower them. The steamer was not designed to hold the extra weight. When passengers congregated on the top deck while the Eastland was tied to a dock in the Chicago River, it rolled over, killing 844 people.
"Are the bigger and badder weaponry less Titanic or more Eastland?" Lochbaum asked.
San Onofre's security manager after 9/11 was Marty Speer, who had worked for Edison for 20 years when he raised the firepower issue.
Speer didn't oppose the use of more powerful weaponry to protect the plants, documents show. His concern was that officers get sufficient training to avoid missed shots and inadvertently creating larger problems, no matter which weapons they carried.
He turned to Lochbaum and the UCS because he wasn't satisfied that plant operator Southern California Edison and federal regulator NRC were taking his concerns seriously, according to the recently released documents.
"I have raised key issues, which have the potential to affect the health and safety of the public, as well as the physical integrity of the plant," Speer wrote to the NRC in 2003.
"I recognize SCE will not respond to the concerns raised by me in any meaningful way."
Both Southern California Edison and the NRC investigated Speer's concerns, documents show. The NRC's response was essentially, "Don't let your security officers miss the bad guys," said Lochbaum, whose expertise is often sought at congressional hearings on nuclear matters.
An earlier letter to Speer from NRC Senior Allegations Coordinator Russell Wise in 2002 said a review had "concluded that sufficient redundancy and diversity exists in the plant design to make it highly unlikely that a safety function would be lost ... because of the use of high-powered ammunition by security force responders."
Plant security must defend against attackers whose goal is to damage or disable safety-related equipment, the letter said. Because such attackers would likely be armed with automatic weapons with high-powered ammunition, the guards must have comparable equipment, it said.
The NRC concluded that Speer's concern that high-powered weapons posed an unacceptable risk to safety-related equipment was not substantiated, and it planned no further action on the matter.
Speer retired in 2012 after 30 years at Edison. He could not be reached for comment for this story.
The ammunition available to security personnel at nuclear plants is more powerful since 9/11. But NRC spokesman Eric Stahl said the types of weapons haven't changed much. Security officers must be trained on any weapons they carry and must "qualify" with their weapons annually, he said.
"It is recognized that 'friendly fire' could damage some plant equipment should it be struck by weapons fire; however, every effort is made to avoid such incidents," Stahl said.
Since 2001, the NRC has required more training and higher qualification standards for security personnel, he said. Guards must qualify each year with a nationally recognized firing course, earning at least 70 percent of the maximum score for revolvers and semiautomatic pistols and 80 percent of the maximum score for semiautomatic rifles, according to the NRC's published criteria.
A Southern California Edison representative said San Onofre has never had an instance of a security officer inadvertently firing a weapon at plant equipment.
All "live fire" training and qualification occurs at a firing range about 10 miles from San Onofre and meets or exceeds all NRC requirements, said spokeswoman Maureen Brown.
"San Onofre's security program is set up to minimize weapon handling while at the plant, and when weapons are carried, they are carried in the safest possible condition for the situation," she said.
When new weaponry is introduced at San Onofre, Edison conducts an analysis that considers the type of ammunition, fields of fire, location of vital equipment, potential adversary routes and security officer training.
"The strategy is designed so sufficient equipment is protected to ensure public health and safety," Brown said.
Concerns remain, however.
"We have upgraded security at America's nuclear plants and made it much harder for bad guys to cause mayhem, and that's good," Lochbaum said. "But there's all kinds of equipment that could inadvertently be damaged, and not much training on what security officers should try not to hit."
One simple approach is to reinforce control panels, hallways adjacent to sensitive systems and the like with thicker steel that can withstand higher-powered ammunition.
"There are a lot of things not being done, that can be done, to better protect these plants," Lochbaum said.
Environmentalist Gene Stone, who runs Residents Organized For a Safe Environment in San Clemente, would like to see nuclear security embrace the next wave of high-tech weaponry.
"There are rounds that will go through one thing, but they will not go through a second thing, because they break up and are no longer viable," said Stone, who served on San Onofre's Community Engagement Panel, advising Edison on decommissioning. "Obviously, nuclear safety has to be taken extremely seriously in the crazy world we live in today."
With an eye to growing terrorist threats, Daniel Hirsch, director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at UC Santa Cruz, has been pushing the NRC to upgrade security at nuclear power plants since the early 1980s.
Over the years, federal regulators have increased security requirements, he said: Plants must be ready to repel truck bombs as well as teams of attackers who infiltrate on foot. But protections against some other types of attacks, such as by air and sea, are lagging, Hirsch said.
"Over the decades of dealing with the NRC, the pattern has never changed," he said. "I've never seen them ahead of the risk rather than behind it. The NRC sees its job as keeping the burden low on the nuclear industry. This is an exceedingly dangerous mismatch between a captured regulatory agency and an adversary that is nimble, lethal and has absolutely no compunction."
Anti-nuclear activist Roger Johnson, a retired psychology professor in San Clemente, said he believes cost is a major consideration in plant security programs.
The NRC's approach has been to guard against a few armed intruders, like a bank holdup, he said. "They will say with a straight face that they are secure. What they mean is that they have 100 percent of the security that is required -- which is very little," he said.