By JOHN SOLOMON and DAVID GRAM, Associated Press Writers
Presidential hopeful Howard Dean (news - web sites), who accuses President Bush (news - web sites) of being weak on homeland security, was warned repeatedly as Vermont governor about security lapses at his state's nuclear power plant and was told the state was ill-prepared for a disaster at its most attractive terrorist target.
The warnings, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press, began in 1991 when a group of students were brought into a secure area of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant without proper screening. On at least two occasions, a gun or mock terrorists passed undetected into the plant during security tests.
During Dean's final year in office in 2002, an audit concluded that despite a decade of repeated warnings of poor safety at Vermont Yankee, Dean's administration was poorly prepared for a nuclear disaster.
"The lack of funding and overarching coordination at the state level directly impacts the ability of the state, local and power plant planners to be adequately prepared for a real emergency at Vermont Yankee," state Auditor Elizabeth M. Ready wrote in a study issued five months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Security was so lax at Vermont Yankee that in August 2001, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staged a drill in which three mock terrorists gained access to the plant. The agency gave Vermont Yankee the worst security rating among the nation's 103 reactors.
The NRC has primary responsibility for safety at Vermont Yankee. But Vermont laws required an active state role by creating a panel to review security and performance and requiring plant operators to set aside money for the state to use in the event of a nuclear disaster.
Dean's campaign said Saturday it ultimately was the NRC's responsibility to ensure security at the plant, but that he badgered Vermont Yankee's operators and the NRC to make improvements during the 1990s. It noted the NRC's safety budget was cut in the 1990s.
"After September 11, Governor Dean decided the buck stops here in terms of security and personally ran this effort, creating a Cabinet-level agency," spokesman Jay Carson said.
Carson acknowledged there were weaknesses before 2002 in Vermont's nuclear preparedness, and Dean moved quickly afterward to place state troopers and National Guardsman at the plant, distribute radiation pills to civilians, demand a federal no-fly zone over the plant to prevent an aerial attack, and increase emergency preparedness funding.
"As many have said before, hindsight is 20-20 and no one could have predicted what could have happened on a terrible day in September 2001," Carson said.
"In retrospect, every state in the entire country could have been safer. The important thing is after Governor Dean recognized these vulnerabilities, he took swift, bold steps to make things better," Carson said.
State Auditor Ready, a Democrat and Dean backer, agreed things improved after her critical 2002 report and that security tests this year showed Vermont Yankee was safer. "Once Governor Dean got that report there was swift and thorough action," she said.
But even after Ready's report recommended the state's nuclear preparedness spending triple from $400,000 to $1.2 million, Dean budgeted only half the increase.
That led Dean's state emergency management director, Ed von Turkovich, to tell the Legislature in 2002 that the increase to $800,000 "does not cover the expenses related to the program" and that Vermont's nuclear preparedness was "in trouble, grossly underfunded, under-resourced and has been for years." Dean's campaign said the governor spent significant other money on security through other departments.
The lack of preparedness was blamed in the 2002 audit on inadequate funds. "Vermont receives the least amount of funding for its Radiological Emergency Response Plan, in total dollars, of any New England state that hosts a nuclear power plant," the audit disclosed.
The audit was not the first warning to Dean, documents show.
On Feb. 14, 2000, von Turkovich wrote Dean's top deputy, Administration Secretary Kathleen Hoyt, expressing concern the state was not forcing Vermont Yankee, which was up for sale, to set aside more money for preparedness.
"We are sympathetic to the utility's concern for controlling costs with respect to the pending sale of the plant and have committed to expend additional state and federal resources to subsidize this program in the coming year," von Turkovich wrote.
"However, I believe in the near future, the present or new owners will need to broaden their level of support for preparedness activities that need to be accomplished on behalf of the communities that reside in the Emergency Planning Zone," he wrote.
The documents contrast with Dean's position as a presidential candidate who has portrayed himself as more concerned about nuclear security than Bush.
"Our most important challenge will be to address the most dangerous threat of all: catastrophic terrorism using weapons of mass destruction," Dean said in his speech in Los Angeles last month. "Here, where the stakes are highest, the current administration has, remarkably, done the least."
Dean also has suggested Bush was unprepared before and after Sept. 11 to fight terrorism. "We are in danger of losing the war on terror, because we are fighting it with the strategies of the past," the Democratic candidate said.
The Vermont documents show Dean and his top aides received numerous warnings about Vermont Yankee.
In August 1991, an aide sent a handwritten memo to Dean saying there was a "security error" at Vermont Yankee that was "not public."
A group of students "on a tour were taken into a secure area without checking through security first," the aide wrote, saying the matter was minor but would be disclosed to federal regulators. Dean initialed the memo, indicating he read it.
In 1992, the NRC provided information to Dean about "declining performances at Vermont Yankee in three important areas: plant security, engineering/technical support and safety assessment/quality verification," documents show.
Dean responded by writing the head of the plant that the problems could "have an impact on the health and safety of the people of Vermont" and "it is my expectation that you will do all in your power to correct this declining trend." It was one of several such letters he wrote.
Just months later, the Vermont Nuclear Advisory Panel, a state panel, reported that two nuclear fuel mishandling incidents at the plant were the "result of complacent operator and management actions."
Richard Sedano, Dean's top utility regulator, said Saturday that while "everybody has a different appreciation of terrorism after the World Trade Center" the state closely monitored Vermont Yankee's safety and in May 1993 staged a public hearing to embarrass the plant's operators into improving their management. He called it a "therapeutic and beneficial experience."
Environmental groups sent Dean repeated letters about the plant's security and safety. During a 1998 federal security test, mock terrorists sneaked a fake gun past security and six times scaled, undetected, the plant's security perimeter fence.
The 1998 test was alarming because seven years earlier, protesters had managed to breach the same security by scaling the fence or rafting down an adjacent river. The 2001 security test again penetrated Vermont Yankee's security.
Ready's audit in 2002 questioned why, with so many warnings about safety, Dean's administration had significantly fewer people committed to nuclear emergency planning than neighboring states.
"Unlike its nearest counterparts, Vermont's Division of Emergency Management has only one full-time and two part-time staff to support" its emergency response program, she wrote. "New Hampshire has nearly 20 full- and part-time staff as well as consultants, while Massachusetts has more than 20 full-time staff to carry out" its program.