Nuclear power plants came on the scene in the post World War II era with lots of official enthusiasm and a shortage of concern about safety. But much of that early excitement about the future of nuclear power faded after the accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 and the high economic costs of this technology with its deadly wastes.
Now the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are generating new fears that the nation’s existing 103 nuclear power reactors may become our biggest nightmare in the event of new terrorist attacks. For over 30 years watchdog organizations, which follow the nuclear power industry, have warned that a successful attack on a nuclear power plant–particularly one near a large city–could unleash an immense quantity of radioactivity which could cause hundreds of thousands of cancers and contaminate wide areas for generations. The former Atomic Energy Commission estimated that a “class-nine” nuclear power meltdown could contaminate an area “the size of Pennsylvania.” What would happen if a large jet airliner–such as those that slammed into the World Trade Center–crashed into a nuclear reactor? Here is the way Dr. Edwin Lyman, scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington describes such an event:
“Well, the engines are one of the most rigid parts of the jet and would penetrate the containment, leading to a fuel spill within the building and likely a severe jet fuel fire or explosion, like we saw at the World Trade Center. Nuclear power plants are not well-equipped to deal with severe fires·so, if the containment has already been breached, the radioactivity released from the (nuclear) fuel as it is melting will have no barrier to the environment, and therefore a Chernobyl-type massive release of radioactivity is something that cannot be excluded.”
The concern that nuclear reactors are potential targets for terrorist attacks was given credence by reports published in the Sunday Times of London venturing that the jet airliner which crashed in western Pennsylvania on September 11 may have been headed for the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The newspaper quoted anonymous U.S. security sources as saying that the nuclear facility had been the subject of surveillance by some of the hijackers and their associates in the months before the terrorist attacks. So far, though, that is speculation.
The Nuclear Control Institute along with another major monitor of the nuclear industry–Committee to Bridge the Gap–charge that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and other government agencies have failed to move decisively to impose “security measures that are needed to prevent a successful attack and avert catastrophic radiological consequences.”
The organizations want immediate utilization of National Guard troops to deter attacks and the deployment of advanced anti-aircraft weapons to deter suicidal attacks from the air and thorough “re-vetting” of all plant employees and contractors to protect against sabotage by insiders. These groups also want NRC to “significantly upgrade its security regulations to protect against the larger numbers and greater sophistication of attackers posed by the new terrorist threat.”
Representative Ed Markey of Boston, who has long expressed concern about the lack of vigor by NRC, says that neither the regulatory agency nor the nuclear power industry appear to have “fully awakened to the fact that we are living in a whole new world after September 11.”
“The terrorist attacks·require us to reexamine all of our security procedures and regulations pertaining to nuclear power plants,” said Markey, who is a senior Member of the House Commerce Committee which has legislative jurisdiction over NRC. “There is no greater single threat to our way of life than a successful attack on a nuclear power plant·it would be catastrophic.”
Paul Leventhal, long-time president of the non-profit Nuclear Control Institute, says NRC’s responses to Representative Markey and the watchdog organizations suggest a “long bureaucratic review process” before new safeguards are placed into effect–something that Leventhal says is “simply unacceptable.”
The concerns of Representative Markey and the watchdog organizations need to be given highest priority by the Bush Administration as well as the National Regulatory Commission and the Congress. The consequences of an effective attack on a nuclear reactor is far too great to let the NRC drag its feet on imposing new security requirements for all 103 nuclear power facilities.
If these facilities can’t be made secure, the federal government, as Paul Leventhal suggests, has no choice but to shut down the plants. The risk is too great to do otherwise.
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