News & Politics

Nukespeak Redux

Nuclear-safety experts are outraged at a recent NRC ruling that puts secrecy over protecting public safety.
When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled recently that the threat of terrorism cannot be considered when licensing reactors because the risk is too speculative, and that discussing the issue in licensing hearings would give too much information to terrorists and "unduly alarm the public," it was frighteningly reminiscent of equally Orwellian pronouncements issued previously by federal regulators. Remember when our dosage of radiation "fallout" from aboveground nuclear tests was measured in "sunshine units," or claims that nuclear-generated electricity would be "too cheap to meter?"

The commission's latest exercise in Nukespeak concerns a factory that Duke Energy and other companies are seeking to build in South Carolina to turn weapons plutonium into reactor fuel; two existing Duke reactor plants that would use the fuel; a temporary waste-storage project in Utah; and a project to expand fuel storage at the Millstone reactors in Waterford, Connecticut.

In the past, design features at nuclear plants proposed to ensure environmental safety have been available for public scrutiny. But the commission now says that security preparations and characteristics of plants that would bear on the success of a terrorist attack must remain secret, and ruled that terrorism could not be considered under the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that requires the government to issue an Environmental Impact Statement when it takes a major action.

The commission ruling took note of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but said the proper approach would be to improve security at nuclear sites, on airplanes and around the country generally, rather than to try to determine the environmental effects of "a third-party attack" on a site.

The ruling outraged many nuclear-safety experts, including former commissioner Victor Gilinsky, who complained that at a time when the commission forbids considering terrorism at the Duke plutonium plant, "(Attorney General) Ashcroft is changing the Bill of Rights because it is imminent."

Peter A. Bradford, another former NRC member, compared the commission's attitude to its view on hydrogen explosions. Before the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island (which regulators called "a normal aberration" and a "plant transient" rather than use the word "accident") such explosions were considered impossible. After the one at Three Mile Island, he said, the commission still considered them impossible, "because now that we had had one, we would be too vigilant for another to occur."

"The bottom line is that events that have occurred but that can't be dealt with must still be considered impossible, first because they haven't yet occurred, then because they have," Bradford said.

The commission has historically declined to speculate about terrorist threats against reactors. In the late 80's and early 90's, it fought off arguments that stronger defenses against truck bombs were needed, despite truck bomb attacks around the world. It argued that in the United States no bomb could be assembled without attracting the notice of the police. But in early 1993, terrorists exploded a truck bomb in an underground garage at the World Trade Center, and a man with a history of mental problems drove his station wagon through a gate and into the turbine building at Three Mile Island. The man, who was not armed, then hid inside the plant for hours.

The commission soon revised its rules to cover bombs in small vehicles. But it has yet to institute any rules changes related to the Sept. 11 attacks. Dr. Edwin Lyman, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, an antiproliferation group in Washington, says the commission's reasoning is contradictory. The commission believes it need not consider terrorism, Dr. Lyman points out, because terrorism is "entirely independent of the facility." But he adds that "ignores the fact that the terrorist threat to a facility is surely dependent on where that facilities is sited, i.e. in a remote or densely populated area."

"One of the main threats we face today in the U.S. is that many potentially hazardous facilities are located near heavily populated areas," Dr. Lyman recently told the New York Times. "This situation is tolerated because severe accidents are considered highly improbable. But surely in the future, it makes sense to consider the possibility of terrorist acts that could intentionally cause large releases when making decisions about the location and design features of hazardous facilities."

But the NRC, stuck in mindset based on wishful thinking and still employing a language of euphemism and distortion, disagrees. Saying that it defines risk as a product of the probability of an event multiplied by its consequences, the NRC maintains that when it comes to terrorism and nuclear safety, "we have no way to calculate the probability portion of the equation, except in such general terms as to be nearly meaningless."

With our regulators still dedicated more to selling nuclear technology to the American public than protecting them from it, their continued reliance on information-management techniques is not surprising. Historically, nuclear regulators have confused hopes with reality, presented expectations and assumptions as facts, covered up damaging information and failed to learn from their mistakes. But with the emerging threat of terrorism, can the American public afford to continue relying on their Big Brotherly bromide that "Ignorance is Strength?"

Rory O'Connor co-wrote "Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology in America" (Penguin Book, 1983).
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