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Nuclear Plants Adequately Guarded, Court Rules

by Bob Egelko

The government can rely on the nation's defenses to prevent terrorist attacks from the air on nuclear power plants and doesn't have to order operators to take additional measures, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In this Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2005 picture, smoke billows from two active cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pa. The power plant is nestled on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) In a 2-1 decision, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected claims by critics of the nuclear industry, joined by the states of California and New York, that current measures to guard the plants from attacks by land and water fail to address the dangers of aerial assaults.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reasonably concluded that U.S. military and security forces would thwart most potential air attacks and that design changes and safety plans it has required "would likely prevent any serious harm," Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall said in the majority opinion Friday.

In dissent, Judge Sidney Thomas said the commission had ignored studies that concluded an airplane strike on a nuclear plant could cause catastrophic damage. One New York study found that even a light plane could cause a core meltdown if it hit a plant's control building, Thomas said.

The commission "owes the public a rational and reasonable explanation why it would exclude from its (safety) rule consideration of terrorist air attacks," Thomas said.

He did not suggest any specific protective measures. Among those the plaintiffs proposed were shields of connected I-beams and netting around key structures.

The ruling "allows the (commission) to give greater consideration to the financial interest of the nuclear industry than to the health and safety of the public," said Jane Swanson, spokeswoman for the anti-nuclear group San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, which took part in the suit.

Mothers for Peace also sued the commission over its approval of a new nuclear waste storage site at the Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo. The group won a ruling from the appeals court in 2006 requiring the regulatory agency to consider the environmental consequences of a terrorist attack before allowing operations.

The commission then issued a report finding that an attack would cause no significant damage. Swanson's group has asked the appeals court to reject the report and close the storage site.

 

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