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The woes of a decentralized government

NOT THAT IT takes much to make the Nuclear Regulatory Commission look bad ... but last week U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) did just that – and he got a little help from an unlikely place.

In a scathing March 25 report on current security measures at the nation's 104 nuclear power plants, Markey criticized the NRC for failing to take steps to protect the facilities from a terrorist attack. Markey pointed to a number of shortcomings in his 13-page analysis, "A Hard Look at the Soft Spots in Our Civilian Nuclear Reactor Security," which was widely distributed nationwide, though it received little press attention in the Bay Area.

Among his concerns: plants could have already been infiltrated by Osama bin Laden sympathizers now employed as nuclear reactor workers because of inadequate background checks.

Facilities might also be attacked outright, World Trade Center style, Markey reminded us. That's a particularly scary prospect – think: world catastrophe – and a plausible one, given that 21 of the plants (none of which happen to be in California, by the way) are located within five miles of an airport. And 96 percent of all reactors in the United States were designed without regard to the threat of even a small aircraft crashing into them.

Markey's suggestion: install anti-aircraft weaponry, which, you have to admit, is kind of a creepy notion in itself. Monster guns near a nuclear power plant ... doesn't sound good no matter how you think about it.

Not surprisingly, the NRC rejected the idea outright, telling the longtime-antinuke congressperson that "the proper way to deal with the potential hijacking of a large commercial aircraft by suicidal terrorists is through the measures on airline security now well underway."

What the NRC had no way of knowing was that on the very day Markey's report was made public, a secret report would be leaked to the media revealing that security in airports across the country remains abysmal. According to an Inspector General investigation of airport security, conducted from November 2001 through early February, weapons and simulated explosives are easily slipping by security checkpoints. In 783 tests, in fact, screeners missed knives 70 percent of the time, guns 30 percent, and explosive-like devices 60 percent.

Oops. Just when we thought nukes were safe. (Melissa Houston)

Don't get better, get bigger

Job seekers, listen up!

Though the Inspector General suggests that security at airports hasn't improved since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government announced plans last week to expand its services.

In a March 26 USA Today report, Richard Bennis, the director of maritime and land security, said baggage screeners could soon be rifling through your stuff if you travel by bus, train, or cruise ship.

By year's end, some 30,000 people are expected to be employed by the new Transportation Security Administration, which will head up the effort to pick through your belongings.

Nosy Nellies encouraged to apply. (Houston)