Nuclear Terrorism, Nuclear Safety

Though few are now talking about it, atomic power is high on the list of realities forever transformed by the terrorist nightmare of September 11.

Despite saturation media coverage, both the Bush administration and mainstream commentators have been ominously silent about the most obvious terrorist target of all: our 103 licensed commercial nuclear plants.

The four jetliners hijacked September 11 flew perilously close to at least a dozen operating reactors, from Pilgrim, Millstone and Indian Point, between Boston and New York, to Surry, North Anna and Calvert Cliffs near Washington, to Peach Bottom, Limerick and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Though the industry has claimed the containment domes on such plants might withstand a jet crash, no credible engineer would agree. In fact, it's inconceivable any of them could survive a direct hit followed by a long jet-fueled fire such as the ones that destroyed the World Trade Center.

And had the terrorists chosen to target one of those reactors instead of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, we would be talking about tens of thousands of dead, hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of long-term cancers, and hundreds of billions of dollars in property damage.

In short, a holocaust from which this nation might never recover.

Such fearful realities have been integral to the debate over nuclear power since its inception. Early reactor opponents argued as early as the 1960s that reactors in populated areas might be terrorist targets. In the 1970s an airline hijacker talked about crashing into a nuclear facility. In the 1980s the Ayatollah Khomeini threatened to hit "nuclear targets" inside the U.S. In the early 1990s followers of Osama Bin Laden are believed to have trained within a hundred miles of Three Mile Island.

In recent years, ground-level security at U.S. reactor sites has become notoriously lax. Journalists and anti-nuke activists have easily penetrated the environs of operating nukes. In many cases, a simple bomb or someone wrecking random havoc inside a hijacked control room could do Chernobyl-scale damage.

But now the prospect of an attack from the air has taken things to a new level. Even in the unlikely event a containment dome could withstand a hit from a jetliner, the ensuing fire would almost certainly lead to a meltdown or explosion. Nor would it be necessary to hit the dome at all. Pools holding thousands of tons of high-level fuel rods sit at most reactors sites with no containment whatsoever. Merely disrupting their cooling systems could cause a melt-down, as might an assault on turbine housings, emergency power generators, communications systems and many other parts of the immensely complex and fragile infrastructure that keeps nuclear plants from turning rogue.

At least one type of newly proposed reactor -- the pebble bed design -- is being offered with no containment at all. Small wonder those proposing to build new atomic plants want Congress to approve an extension of federal liability insurance, insulating them from the consequences of a catastrophic accident. In other words, because no private insurer will take them on, the industry wants taxpayer protection against paying for a disaster, one we now see could all-too-easily come from terrorism even on a far less demanding scale than what happened September 11.

And what would be the real consequences of such a disaster? Most American reactors sit in areas that were once isolated, but which have now been surrounded by suburban sprawl. Evacuation planning is threadbare and essentially unworkable. Most mass escape schemes are built around the expected lead-time offered by a mechanical failure, a luxury no terrorist attack would provide.

Chernobyl Unit Four, which spewed an apocalyptic radioactive cloud over much of Europe and into the jetstream (the fallout was detected across the northern U.S. within 10 days), had been operating only for four years. Its internal radioactive inventory was thus comparatively small.

Most U.S. reactors have operated far longer, and have accumulated far more deadly radiation, both inside their containments and in the nearby spent fuel pools. An explosion in any one of them would almost certainly throw far greater quantities of lethal radiation downwind and into the planet's atmosphere.

At Chernobyl, the death toll has been impossible to calculate, but may ultimately stretch into the millions due to the long-term effects of cancer, malformations and stillbirths. Hundreds of square miles remain permanently uninhabitable. The financial cost estimates run in the range of $500 billion, and growing.

But in the U.S., surrounding population levels are far higher, and property values are in another range of magnitude. In short, it is virtually impossible to calculate the damage that could be done. But it would dwarf what we have just experienced at the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Today the U.S. gets about 20 percent of its electricity -- less than 10 percent of its total energy -- from atomic power. Ironically, the recent electricity crisis in California has shown that a focused public can rapidly cut into its use of power. Since prices skyrocketed, Californians have used conservation and efficiency to chop as much as 10 percent of their consumption, with more savings still coming in. Safe alternative forms of generation, particularly wind power and photovoltaic (solar) cells, are also now cost effective on a mass scale.

In short, we could turn off our nuclear plants today and get by. There may be some short-term inconveniences. But nothing that would compare with the ultimate horror of a nuclear disaster caused by the kind of terrorism we have just seen.

Indeed, even though this administration doesn't seem to want to talk about it, the unthinkable has now become tangible. In the name of national security and of basic sanity, all U.S. reactors must be shut as quickly as possible.

Harvey Wasserman is author of The Last Energy War (Seven Stories Press).


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