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As the World Worries About Rising Nuclear Dangers in Ukraine, NGOs Tell Biden that US Nuclear Plants Aren’t Safe from Attack

While IAEA Pushes to Secure Ukraine’s Beleaguered Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant, US Nuclear Plants Remain at Risk, Warns Sign-on Letter

Yesterday the White House received a letter signed by some 90 NGOs plus over 70 individuals and counting telling President Biden that “nuclear plant security must begin at home.” The sign-on letter was spearheaded by the Nuclear Energy Information Service (NEIS).

While the US has expressed its concern that Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) is under threat of attack and Congress has authorized federal spending to help with ZNPP security issues, US civilian nuclear power plants remain vulnerable to attack at home, and government spending and regulation to make them harder targets is lagging badly.

ZNPP, Europe’s largest nuclear plant, is currently occupied by over 2500 Russian troops. It has been repeatedly shelled, cutting the plant off from the electrical grid seven times, raising concerns about cooling loss and meltdown risks. Each side in the conflict accuses the other of using these risks to gain advantage in the war. The International Atomic Energy Agency is currently pushing for an agreement to secure ZNPP before a renewed Ukrainian offensive in the area aggravates risks to the plant.

But meanwhile, the letter to President Biden points out, security threats to US nuclear power plants remain underrecognized and inadequately addressed.

“The security of U.S. nuclear power plants does not seem to be receiving a commensurate amount of attention, neither from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), nor the Administration,” the letter warns. “Worse, your Administration is also seeking to expand the nuclear industry in dangerous ways that compound nuclear plant security threats…The US government must learn the lesson of Zaporizhzhia -- that attacks on nuclear facilities and other external dangers they face are credible threats and could happen here -- and prioritize domestic US nuclear plant security accordingly.”

Documentation submitted with the letter cites studies that find US civilian nuclear power plants are insufficiently protected from credible terrorist threats, and highly vulnerable to cyberattack. Security decisions are left up to the plant’s owners, which have an incentive to cut costs and maximize profits. In addition to attacks on operating or decommissioned plants themselves, the highly radioactive nuclear waste they generate is also vulnerable to attack, both in storage facilities and during transport. Nuclear waste transport dangers were pointed out in writing repeatedly to Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, but as yet DOT hasn’t issued a reply.

“The recent catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and the crash of two Boeing 737MAX jets demonstrate the real-world consequences of inadequate or capriciously enforced safety regulation and oversight,” the letter argues. “We can’t add radiological releases from US nuclear plants or nuclear waste shipment and storage to this list.”

The letter writers submitted a list of recommendations to improve US nuclear plant security, including framing and enforcing enhanced, mandatory security measures for existing nuclear facilities and spent nuclear fuel, with costs borne by nuclear plant owners rather than US taxpayers. Other recommendations include Hardened Onsite Storage (HOSS) for highly irradiated “spent” nuclear fuel (SNF), and preventing proposed SNF shipments by truck, train, and barge across the country to two recently licensed consolidated interim storage facilities (CISFs) in Texas and New Mexico, which would concentrate radioactivity and themselves be potential terrorist targets.

The proposed New Mexico CISF is owned by the private US-based company Holtec International, which formerly contracted to handle spent fuel management at ZNPP, and recently signed a contract with Ukraine’s Energoatom to develop and deploy small modular nuclear reactors in Ukraine.

“Holtec’s performance in handling spent fuel has been abysmal in Ukraine and similarly abysmal in the United States,” said Kevin Kamps, Radioactive Waste Specialist with the national NGO Beyond Nuclear, which signed onto the letter. “That’s one illustration among others that the problem is not limited to Ukraine, and that US nuclear plants are subject to security threats we need to start addressing.”

“What sense does it make to send tens of millions of dollars to Ukraine to enhance security and safety, when our own 92 operating reactors and 90,000 tons of high-level radioactive wastes are not secure?” asked NEIS director Dave Kraft. “What sense does it make to sprinkle the next-generation micro- and mini- nuke reactors around the nation and the world, boasting they can be mobile on flat-bed trucks or housed in factories or Wal-Marts, when it is daily demonstrated that silent drones are capable of turning heavily armored tanks and military vehicles into shredded heaps of burning metal? This is the real world nuclear power now exists in, and this Administration is not prepared to provide the safety and security necessary for it to survive.”

Beyond Nuclear aims to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abandon both to safeguard our future. Beyond Nuclear advocates for an energy future that is sustainable, benign and democratic.

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