FEATURE STORY | Special Report

Nuclear Safety


What happens if a suicide bomber drives a jumbo
jet into one of America's 103 nuclear power
reactors? What happens if a fire fed by thousands
of tons of jet fuel roars through a reactor
complex--or, worse, through the enormous and
barely-protected containment pools of spent
nuclear fuel found at every such plant?

These questions are even more obvious and urgent
than they may seem at first glance. Russian
television reported on Wednesday: "Our [Russian]
security services are warning the United States
that what happened on Tuesday is just the
beginning, and that the next target of the
terrorists will be an American nuclear facility."
[See www.nci.org.] Meanwhile, eight years ago, in
the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings,
the terrorists themselves wrote to the New York
Times to warn that nuclear attack would follow.

That letter, judged authentic by federal
authorities, talked of "150 suicide soldiers" who
would hit "nuclear targets." As if to drive home
the point, those same terrorists had trained
beforehand at a camp in Pennsylvania thirty miles
from Three Mile Island. US law enforcement had
them under surveillance at least a month before
they struck--and at one point observed them
conducting a mock assault on an electric power
substation. That very same weekend, a man later
judged to be mentally unwell drove his station
wagon through the security barriers at Three Mile
Island and parked next to a supposedly secured
building. [See www.tmia.com.]

There are nuclear power plants outside many urban
areas. There's Indian Point on the Hudson River,
some twenty-five miles northwest of New York City;
Limerick Plant some twenty miles outside of
Philadelphia; Calvert Cliffs, forty-five miles
from the nation's capital; and a handful of
nuclear plants ringing Chicago, from Dresden to
Braidwood. A terrorist strike at any such plant
could not bring about a nuclear explosion--but
there are a number of scenarios that would spread
deadly radiation clouds across, in the NRC's
famous phrase, an area the size of Pennsylvania.
On top of the tens of thousands of eventual
radiation-driven deaths, there is the mass panic
such an attack might cause. And if we can clean up
and rebuild after the World Trade Center bombing,
a radiological attack would force us to write off
huge swathes of land as national sacrifice areas.

So given the extraordinary events of this week,
we're taking extraordinary measures to protect our
nuclear plants, right?

Well, in France, the defense minister has
stationed troops around nuclear power plants...
But in America, not much is being done.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday in a
statement said it had "recommended" that plants
tighten security. Bob Jasinski, an NRC spokesman,
said Friday that nothing had changed since then.
(What about Wednesday's Russian TV report? Or the
repeated insistence by authorities that there are
more terrorist cells out there?) The NRC also says
there have been "no credible general or specific
threats to any of these [nuclear] facilities"--and
does not seem interested in reconsidering the
specific and, it now seems, very credible 1993
threats of 150 suicide soldiers headed the NRC's

Security Already "Privatized"

David Orrik, a former US Navy Seal, until recently
ran a program that tested the security at civilian
nuclear plants by organizing mock attacks against
them. His exercises don't sound terribly
ambitious--they pit a small team, moving on foot,
against a nuclear plant security force that would
be warned six months in advance of the test. Even
so, half of all plants tested failed--and in at
least one case, Orrik's men were able to simulate
enough sabotage to cause a core melt. And
remember, these tests did not simulate, say, the
Osama bin Laden truck bombs so successful in
demolishing US embassies in Africa in 1998.

The nuclear industry did not enjoy failing, and
did not enjoy shelling out hundreds of thousands
of dollars to prepare for Orrik's tests--or to
install security upgrades as the penalty for not
passing. So it began to lean on the NRC to gut the
program. This fall, the NRC is doing just
that--phasing out Orrik's program in favor of one
in which nuclear power plants will carry out
"self-assessments." An NRC spokesman could not say
if that plan would now be scrapped, and neither
could Orrik. Asked on Friday if NRC was
considering any dramatic new security measures,
Orrik said he had "no sense at all" what would
happen next. "I'm curious myself--will it be a sea
change? Or business as usual?"

Sleeping in a Coffin

Ironically, one of the first real critical looks
at the NRC's decision to let nuclear plants who
failed security tests make up their own tests
instead appeared in U.S. News & World Report's
Monday edition--the day before, well, Tuesday.

That article quotes a representative of the
Nuclear Enterprise Institute--the nuclear power
industry's Washington-based trade group--as
arguing that nuclear power plants "are overly
defended at a level that is not at all
commensurate with the risk." On Friday, the NEI's
offices were closed. But a statement on the NEI
website [www.nei.org] trumpeted the "extensive
security measures" insisted on by the NRC,
including employee background checks. These are
the same background checks that let a man named
Carl Drega work at three nuclear power plants
throughout the 1990s. Shortly after leaving the
third plant, Drega went on a 1997 killing spree
that left dead two state troopers, a judge and a
newspaper editor. Nor did such background checks
blackball a computer programmer who worked at the
Maine Yankee nuclear plant and slept in a coffin.
That man goes on trial next year for the murder of
seven co-workers at a Massachusetts technology

The NEI statement on nuclear plant security states
that the reinforced concrete containment buildings
that surround US reactors--they are there to
prevent the spread of radiation in case of an
accident--are "designed to withstand the impact of
hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and airborne
objects up to a certain force." In reality, as
even the NRC conceded on Friday, reactor
containment buildings were not built with the idea
of resisting an intentional assault by a
modern-day jet--certainly not the monster 767s
that crashed into the World Trade Center. The
literature is actually strangely silent on this
point--so much so that experts interviewed all
named the same study, published in 1974 in Nuclear
Safety, about probabilities of a plane
accidentally hitting a nuclear reactor. That study
concluded that some reactor containment structures
had zero chance of sustaining a hit by a "large"
plane, defined as more than 6.25 tons. The 767s
that hit the trade center weighed 150 tons, and
were probably moving at top speed.

In fact, the security vulnerabilities at nuclear
plants are so ghastly that almost everyone
contacted for this article balked at discussing
them in any detail. Paul Gunter, an expert with
the anti-nuclear power Nuclear Information and
Resource Service (NIRS), recoiled when asked about
one possible scenario. "Oh, I don't want to
prescribe that. It's too terrifying to imagine."
NRC spokesman Jasinski also refused to discuss
that scenario. Bennett Ramberg, author of a
sixteen-year-old book called Nuclear Power Plants
as Weapons for the Enemy: an Unrecognized Military
Peril, turned away some questions, saying, "I feel
a little discomfort talking about that now." Later
Friday, after Ramberg saw Wednesday's report of
Pakistani terrorists threatening to target nuclear
installations in India, and Tuesday's report of
Israel thinking of bombing Iran's nuclear
facilities, he felt freer to talk. "The cat's out
of the bag," he observed.

Terrorists Don't Bomb Windmills

This week's events have changed the national
landscape for nuclear power. For starters, they
make the industry's gushy talk about the
next-generation Pebble Bed Reactor--the reactor so
safe it won't even need a containment
building--seem ghastly and ridiculous.

Terrorism also has implications for the Great
Waste Debate. Our reactors have for fifty years
been piling up vast quantities of highly
radioactive spent nuclear fuel. The question of
what to do with it all takes on a new urgency. Do
we ship it all to a central site like the one
proposed for Yucca Mountain--and create a
spectacular series of terrorist targets for years,
turning trains and trucks of waste into what
critics deride as "Mobile Chernobyl"? Or do we
keep waste in vast pools on site at reactor
complexes--in buildings so frail that David
Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of
Concerned Scientists, says they could be pierced
"by a Cessna"--and also keep producing more such
waste every day?

There is no easy answer--which may explain such a
sluggish and bleary-eyed response to potential
terrorism against nuclear targets: the NRC and
others are in denial. Not so long ago, they were
arguing that terrorism was not a very scientific
probability, and that terrorists had a moral
impediment against taking life on a mass scale. So
much for that. But if terrorism is real, then a
clear-eyed view would suggest nuclear power is
done for.

Nuclear power had been previously discredited on
environmental grounds, on public safety grounds
and even on financial grounds--don't be fooled,
it's immensely costly, even with the public paying
for both waste disposal and liability insurance.
This week, nuclear power was also discredited on
grounds of national security. A country that has
nuclear power plants, it turns out, has handed
over to "the enemy" a quasi-nuclear military

We get 20 percent of our electricity from our
fleet of enormously expensive and dangerous
reactors. Regardless of what our vice president
may think, through better energy efficiency and
conservation alone we could reduce energy demand
to the point of not needing any of those
plants--of not even noticing that they had been
shut down. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a
prominent think-tank on energy matters, argues
that "up to 75 percent of the electricity used in
the United States today could be saved with energy
efficiency measures that cost less than the
electricity itself."

Given that our national will and purpose are now
being mobilized, does anyone doubt that, properly
channeled, we could succeed in this? Or that along
the way we could also establish wind power, solar
power and hydrogen fuel cells--and in so doing,
completely wean ourselves from the oil of the
Middle East? Surely this--and not open-ended war
against every nation that has every stamped bin
Laden's passport--is the path to real victory and
national security. After all, as Lochbaum of the
Union of Concerned Scientists noted, no one this
week is calling his colleagues in the alternative
energy sectors to ask about terrorist threats to

In the meantime, we can follow France's lead and
post National Guardsmen around all nuclear
facilities. We can restore the NRC's compulsory
security drills, and make them even more
demanding. Hey, we can even consider anti-aircraft
emplacements at each power plant. And we can see
how safe that makes us feel when the White House
starts trying to punish Afghanistan.


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