Could the Sept. 11 hijackers have gotten jobs at nuclear power plants? Under the current rules governing nuclear safety, at least some of them could have easily gone to work as janitors, carpenters, computer programmers, or other plant employees, according to Dave Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer who works for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Before last fall’s terrorist attacks, utilities submitted fingerprints of job applicants to the FBI for criminal background checks — but the FBI didn’t cross-reference the names with its list of known terrorists. Now, “everybody working at plants or who has ever worked at the plants,” has been checked against the FBI list, said Alan Madison, chief of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safeguards section.

But utilities still are granting temporary clearances to new employees while the FBI completes background checks. To receive provisional access, new hires are only required to present photo ID, pass a credit check, provide a character reference and five-year job history, and take a psychological test. Before Sept. 11, even gun-carrying security guards were allowed temporary clearances, as were janitors, vendors who stock soda and candy machines, engineers, and control room operators. The Union of Concerned Scientists discovered a number of cases in which new employees who had worked inside the plant more than a month were dismissed when the FBI returned details about their criminal history.

Now, new employees awaiting FBI clearance are not allowed in vital areas — places with back-up pumps, generators, and power supply boxes, Madison said. “If their talents are required for essential activities,” they are allowed into such areas, but only when accompanied by another plant employee. The Union of Concerned Scientists says even long-time employees should not be allowed into vital areas alone. A two-person rule, which is used in the military, would eliminate the opportunity for a single employee to sabotage equipment, Lochbaum said.

Several citizen groups, including UCS, have called on the NRC to periodically re-screen all employees, something that was recommended by an NRC advisory committee two decades ago. “Some workers can and do develop criminal records after gaining unescorted privileges at nuclear facilities,” Lochbaum said.

The NRC requires that supervisors monitor employees for drug and alcohol use and for mental stability. But staff cuts at nuclear utilities nationwide — the result of competition in the electricity market — mean there are fewer supervisors to monitor employees. Barry Quigley, a reactor operator at an Illinois nuclear plant, said most supervisors don’t have time to observe employee behavior, and many employees work without supervision.

Quigley also said managers are not trained to detect patterns of unstable behavior. For example, at one plant, the only training question that supervisors must answer about mental stability is: “Is a person sitting on the floor crying an example of aberrant behavior?”

“We may never know,” Quigley said, “but I doubt that the 19 bastards [who hijacked the planes] spent much time sitting on the floor crying before Sept. 11.”