WASHINGTON - September 25 - The nation's 103 nuclear power reactors are vulnerable to attack by terrorists, two watchdog groups warned today. The groups charge that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other government entities have failed to impose the security measures needed to prevent a successful attack and avert a potential catastrophe.
Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant is located on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, just 45 miles southeast of Washington DC (All photos courtesy NRC)
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) admitted Friday that it "did not specifically contemplate attacks by aircraft such as Boeing 757s or 767s" - the types of planes used to destroy the 110 story World Trade Center towers and heavily damage the recently fortified Pentagon on September 11.
While the containment buildings that shelter nuclear reactors are able to withstand severe events including hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, "nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes," the agency said in a statement. "Detailed engineering analyses of a large airliner crash have not yet been performed."
In a report released today, the Washington based Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) and the Los Angeles based Committee to Bridge the Gap released a recent exchange of letters with NRC chair Richard Meserve. The organizations cited "the extraordinary and unprecedented threat that now exists inside the United States in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon."
They laid out specific proposals for denying terrorists the opportunity to destroy nuclear power plants, including use of National Guard troops to deter attacks from land and water, deployment of advanced anti-aircraft weapons to defeat suicidal attacks from the air, and a thorough re-vetting of all plant employees and contractors to protect against sabotage by insiders.
In addition, the groups called on the NRC to upgrade its security regulations to protect against the larger numbers and the greater sophistication of attackers posed by the new terrorist threat.
The groups said they have made many attempts over the past 17 years to convince the NRC and commercial nuclear plant operators to upgrade their defenses against assaults by terrorist organizations.
NRC chair Richard Meserve
In a brief response to the groups' specific proposals, Meserve stated only that the "Commission is evaluating current requirements and statutory authority relating to acts or threats of terrorism, including but not limited to those that you presented in your letter."
"This is a familiar refrain, and we do not have the luxury of time to allow the NRC and other federal agencies to engage in a prolonged bureaucratic review process," said Paul Leventhal, president of NCI, at a press conference in Washington. "Iran threatened attacks against U.S. reactors as early as 1987, but recent trial testimony has revealed that [terrorist leader Osama] bin Laden's training camps are offering instruction in 'urban warfare' against 'enemies' installations' including power plants."
"It is prudent to assume, especially after the horrific, highly coordinated attacks of September 11, that bin Laden's soldiers have done their homework and are fully capable to attack nuclear plants for maximum effect," Leventhal warned.
Dr. Edwin Lyman, a physicist and NCI's scientific director, pointed out that a direct, high speed hit by a large commercial passenger jet "would in fact have a high likelihood a penetrating a containment building" that houses a power reactor.
"Following such an assault," Lyman said, "the possibility of an unmitigated loss of coolant accident and significant release of radiation into the environment is a very real one."
David Kyd of the International Atomic Energy Agency told CNN last week that a if a fully fueled large jetliner hit a nuclear reactor, "which is a very extreme scenario, then the containment could be breached and the cooling system of the reactor could be impaired to the point where radioactivity might well be set free."
Used nuclear fuel storage pools, like this one at Calvert Cliffs, could be vulnerable to a meltdown if their water was boiled away or otherwise drained during a terrorist attack
Such a release, whether caused by an air strike, or by a ground or water assault, or by insider sabotage could result in tens of thousands of cancer deaths downwind of the plant. A number of these plants are located near large cities, Lyman noted.
Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, underscored the immediate danger by noting that nearly half of the plants tested in NRC supervised security exercises have failed to repel mock terrorist attacks.
"These exercises involve small numbers of simulated attackers compared with the large cell of terrorists now understood to have waged the four sophisticated attacks of September 11," said Hirsch. "The NRC's mock terrorist exercises severely limit the tactics, weapons and explosives used by the adversary, yet in almost half the tests they reached and simulated destruction of safety systems that in real attacks could have caused severe core damage, meltdown and catastrophic radioactive releases."
"Now in response to operator complaints, the NRC is actually preparing to shift responsibility for supervising these exercises to the operators themselves," Hirsch added. "Current events clearly show that nuclear power plant security is too important to be left to industry self assessment."
Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who sent his own letter to Meserve, questioned the NRC's hands off approach, asking why the NRC issued only a recommendation that nuclear power plants go to their highest state of alert on September 11, rather than ordering them to do so.
Markey also warned that allowing commercial nuclear power plants to self police their readiness to withstand terrorist attacks, "lowers standards, it lowers costs and it increases profitability of shareholders."
In 1993, an individual with a history of mental illness crashed a car through the front gates at the Three Mile Island plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, site of the nation's worst nuclear accident
The watchdog organizations acknowledged today that they have long been troubled by the dilemma of speaking about the present vulnerability of nuclear power plants.
"We have tried to work quietly for a decade and a half in a largely unsuccessful attempt to get the NRC to upgrade reactor security." said Leventhal. "Our principal success came in 1994 when the NRC agreed to require nuclear plant operators to erect barriers and establish setback distances to protect against truck bomb attacks. But this reform came only after the lesson of the bombing of the World Trade Center the year before, and the NRC has refused our appeals to upgrade protection to defend against the much larger bombs used by terrorists since."
Hirsch said that the horrendous attacks of September 11 have now made NRC foot dragging intolerable.
"The new threat should now be evident to all, and the country can afford to wait no longer," Hirsch said. "The vulnerabilities at these plants can and must be closed, now. The American people have a right to know the dangers and to demand the prompt corrective actions that we propose to protect nuclear power plants from terrorist attacks and the unthinkable consequences that could follow."
© Environment News Service (ENS) 2001