Frequently Asked Questions About Force-on-Force Security Exercises at Nuclear Power Plants

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What is a force-on-force inspection? How does it help ensure security at a nuclear power plant?

A force-on-force inspection is a two-phased, performance-based inspection that is designed to verify and assess the ability of licensees' physical protective systems and security organizations to provide high assurance that activities involving special nuclear material are not inimical to the common defense and security of the facilities, and do not constitute an unreasonable risk to public health and safety. A force-on-force inspection is conducted over several days in two separate visits by an inspection team at the licensee's site.

First, NRC security and operations specialists conduct table-top drills on a mock-up of the facility. During this phase they evaluate the effectiveness of licensee security plans against a series of attack scenarios. Drill coordinators explore the number of defenders, their protective positions, and their protective strategy. The role of State, local, and Federal law enforcement and emergency planning officials is also discussed in the table-top drills.

Second, armed with information from the table-top drills, and with information gathered before conducting the table-top drills, detailed plans are made for a number of commando-style attacks seeking to probe potential deficiencies in the protective strategy. A mock adversary force carries out these attacks. The mock adversary force attempts to reach and simulate destroying enough safety equipment to set in motion an event that would damage the reactor's core or spent fuel pool and potentially cause a release of radiation to the environment. The power reactor's security force seeks to interdict the adversary force and prevent them from reaching the safety equipment.

During force-on-force inspections the licensee maintains both its normal security force, which is not involved in the exercise, and a second security force that actually participates in the exercise. The use of weapons and explosives is simulated using electronic equipment and other means. The purpose of these exercises is to identify any significant deficiencies in the protective strategy in the licensee's security plan that need correcting. Any such deficiencies are promptly reviewed and properly addressed. These exercises provide the most realistic evaluation of the proficiency of the licensee's security force, short of an actual terrorist attack.

The NRC inspection teams that conduct the force-on-force inspections at NRC licensed facilities include active duty U.S. Special Operations Forces. These individuals participate in the inspections by:

  • Assisting the NRC inspectors in developing the scenarios used to test the facilities.
  • Providing expert technical advice to the composite adversary force (CAF).
  • Assisting the NRC inspectors in evaluating site security forces and systems.
  • Providing an independent evaluation of the CAF's performance.

How do these exercises improve security at nuclear facilities?

Force-on-force exercises provide a realistic evaluation of the proficiency of licensee security forces against a threat consistent with the design basis threat (DBT). The purpose of these exercises is to identify deficiencies in either the protective strategy, the licensee's security plan, or in its implementation that need correcting. Any such deficiencies are promptly reviewed and properly addressed.

Why weren't these security exercises conducted between September 2001 and February 2003?

Following September 11, 2001, NRC force-on-force exercise activities were suspended because the conduct of such exercises would have been a significant distraction to licensee security forces that were already at the highest level of alert. Moreover, NRC would not have had the resources to conduct the exercises because NRC security personnel were fully engaged in helping to staff NRC's emergency response centers, in developing detailed advisories and Orders for NRC licensees, and in monitoring and evaluating the licensees' heightened security postures, including weekly reports on power reactor licensee physical security resources and program enhancements.

This was a period when both licensee and NRC resources were stretched to their limits, significant enhancements were underway, and it would have been imprudent to try to conduct exercises in that environment. To be effective and safe, force-on-force exercises require significant resources to plan for and conduct. The licensee needs to be able to staff both its normal security force and the complete second security force without driving overtime usage to unacceptable levels. The NRC staff needs to assess in advance potential deficiencies in the protective strategy at a site and choose the exercise scenarios most likely to identify potential weaknesses. Until early 2003, neither NRC nor licensees had the margin of resources necessary to carry out a well-prepared exercise program in the heightened threat environment. NRC and licensees now have the resources. In February 2003, NRC resumed this important activity after having conducted less resource-intensive enhanced table-top drills at seven sites in summer 2002. In 2003, the NRC conducted a pilot program in which the effects of the interim compensatory measures and expanded adversary characteristics that were required by NRC's Orders were evaluated. In 2004, the NRC conducted a transitional force-on-force exercise program during which the inspection processes were refined and the licensees completed physical protection enhancements and implemented their revised security plans. In November 2004, the NRC began conducting evaluated force-on-force inspections.

Which specific licensees will be involved in force-on-force exercises?

The Commission has determined that activities associated with these inspections are sensitive, non-public information. Therefore, the schedule for conducting force-on-force inspections and the sites where they will occur cannot be disclosed publicly. However, every nuclear power plant and certain other major nuclear facilities will be subject to force-on-force inspections every 3 years.

Has the NRC been in contact with the FBI and other Federal law enforcement authorities on conduct of exercises at these particular plants?

Yes, the NRC has been in contact with the FBI and other Federal law enforcement authorities on the force-on-force inspections. Some local FBI offices and some State and local government representatives observe and/or participate in these exercises.

Is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) directly involved? Have law enforcement and intelligence agencies been briefed on these exercises?

The FBI and DHS are the Federal agencies invited to participate in the force-on-force exercises. Intelligence agencies are not expected to participate directly at this time. Lead local law enforcement and representatives from the respective States are also invited to participate or observe.

Do any other regulatory agencies conduct force-on-force exercises?

The NRC is not aware of any other Federal regulatory agency that conducts force-on-force exercises at private sector facilities. However, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense both use the force-on-force model to evaluate the proficiency of security systems.

While the NRC's force-on-force program was suspended, were there no such exercises being conducted at power reactors sites?

In general, licensees have been conducting their own such exercises as part of the security force training and the validation of updated security plans. The Commission's April 29, 2003, training Order includes enhancements in licensee training programs, the details of which are Safeguards Information.

Are these exercises tough enough in the post-September 11 environment?

Yes, the NRC is using adversary characteristics that go beyond the pre-September 11 Design Basis Threat (DBT) for radiological sabotage. Scenarios developed from these characteristics by NRC staff are realistic, challenging, and representative of an enhanced threat consistent with the Commission's February 25, 2002, Order to power reactor licensees and the April 29, 2004, Orders for Training and Qualification and the revised DBT.

Isn't it true that, despite your best effort, no exercise can fully prepare a nuclear power plant for an actual terrorist attack?

A well-developed security program, a skilled security force, a strong training program, and periodic exercises (such as the force-on-force exercises) to test, adjust, and improve upon the security of a nuclear facility are expected to prepare a licensee for a terrorist attack equivalent to the DBT.

Page Last Reviewed/Updated Wednesday, August 26, 2020