Howard Dean, who in his campaign has accused President Bush of being weak on homeland security, was warned repeatedly as Vermont governor about security lapses at his state's only nuclear power plant, and was told that the state was ill-prepared for a disaster there.
The warnings, according to several documents, began in 1991 when a group of students were brought into a secure area of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant without proper screening. At least twice, a gun or mock terrorists passed undetected into the plant during security tests.
In Dean's final year in office in 2002, an audit concluded that despite a decade of 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," 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 its lowest security rating.
The NRC has primary responsibility for safety at Vermont Yankee. But Vermont laws required a state role by creating a panel to review security and performance and requiring plant operators to set aside money for state use in the event of a nuclear disaster.
Dean's campaign said yesterday it was the NRC's responsibility to ensure security at the plant, but that Dean urged Vermont Yankee's operators and the NRC to make improvements in the 1990s. It noted that the NRC's safety budget was cut in the period.
"After September 11, Governor Dean decided the buck stops here in terms of security and personally ran this effort, creating a Cabinet-level agency," said a spokesman, Jay Carson.
Carson acknowledged that there had been weaknesses before 2002 in Vermont's nuclear preparedness, but said Dean had moved quickly to place state troopers and National Guard members at the plant, to distribute radiation pills to civilians, to demand a federal no-fly zone over the plant to prevent an aerial attack, and to increase emergency preparedness funding.
"In retrospect, every state in the entire country could have been safer," Carson said. "The important thing is after Governor Dean recognized these vulnerabilities, he took swift, bold steps to make things better." Ready, the state auditor and a Dean backer, agreed that things had improved after her 2002 report and that security tests have found that 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 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 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 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.
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.
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 a speech last month in Los Angeles. "Here, where the stakes are highest, the current administration has, remarkably, done the least."