US orders increased security for energy systems

Sep 17, 2001 02:00 AM

The government is ordering increased security for America's energy systems, concerned that nuclear plants, power lines, hydroelectric dams and nearly 400,000 miles of oil and gas pipeline could be vulnerable. Regulators stand ready to approve rate increases to cover the costs, if necessary.
While there have been no specific threats against these facilities, the terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon prompted energy companies across the country to scramble to increase protection. The heightened security is likely to remain for some time and could, according to some industry officials, have permanent effects. Already, some energy companies are urging Congress to limit the amount of information that should be provided the public on flow rates and locations of major oil or natural gas pipelines.
New security measures -- such as more extensive monitoring of pipelines or more guards at power plants -- could be expensive and mean higher energy costs for consumers. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said utilities will have to update procedures, adopt new ones, beef up security staffs and improve physical protection of facilities. It said it would give the highest priority to requests for rate increases to pay for the improvements.

About 200,000 miles of pipelines carry oil and petroleum products across the country. An additional 180,000 miles of pipelines carry natural gas. While most of these lines are buried, pumping stations -- some of them operating at unmanned sites -- and other facilities could be vulnerable. Pipeline companies are putting people into previously unmanned facilities, beefing up security at terminals and key pumping stations, and increasing patrols along the thousands of miles of pipes, according to industry officials.
"We've been at heightened security since the attacks," Jerry Halvorsen, president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association, said. Security also has been increased along the 800-mile pipeline that carries oil from Alaska's North Slope, half of it above ground, but officials declined to give details. Security for the nation's electricity grid poses similar challenges, as thousands of miles of high-voltage lines crisscross America. Attacks on key lines could trigger vast power outages because grids are widely interconnected.

Within hours of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the FBI issued an alert to utilities to increase security and report suspicious activities. The alert remains in effect. Regional security coordinators at the North American Electric Reliability Council have been directed by the FBI to step up protection of power grids.
"I don't think anybody wants to talk about where they're vulnerable," said Ellen Vancko, a spokeswoman for the reliability council. "It's a very tough time right now." Nuclear power plants have been on the highest state of alert since the terrorist attacks. But industry officials acknowledged that while reactors have numerous levels of protection and the radioactive cores are enclosed in steel and concrete, there may be no defence against the kind of attack that happened on Sept. 11.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's anti-terrorist strategy has focused largely on protecting a reactor against truck bombs or guerrilla ground attacks, even small aircraft -- but not a threat from a suicide dive by a captured jetliner. "We believe we have well-protected facilities, and our ability to protect these facilities is something we're required to do," said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group. But, he added, "We're not going to issue a blanket statement that we can protect against every scenario that one could come up with."

Source: AP
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