Military guards at nuclear plants urged

Martin Mittelstaedt
Globe and Mail
September 19, 2001

The military should protect nuclear power plants in Canada against terrorist attacks such as those that occurred last week in the United States, Energy Probe says.

The environmental policy group wrote to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Defence Minister Arthur Eggleton and Solicitor-General Lawrence MacAulay on Saturday, asking for a federal military presence at the country’s five nuclear power complexes in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, and at other atomic facilities.

Such a request, if granted, would increase security dramatically at the sprawling power plants. Guards now don’t even carry weapons, and anglers’ boats often pass nearby.

Energy Probe executive director Tom Adams said the stations, and other nuclear installations, were not designed to withstand attacks. “It’s clear that the nuclear industry has not made anything like adequate precautions,” he said.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the federal watchdog that reviews security arrangements at atomic installations, refused to answer questions about the request, saying to do so might compromise security arrangements.

“We’re not going to talk about specific measures,” Jim Leveque, commission spokesman said.

Energy Probe refused to release the text of its letter, but Mr. Adams said it identified a number of safety oversights that could be useful to terrorists. It didn’t say why it believes military personnel would make reactors safer.

The call for extra protection comes amid worry about the ability of such plants to withstand attacks.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission insisted yesterday that reactors can withstand aircraft impacts such as those that brought down two World Trade Center towers last week.

“It is the considered opinion of the NRC that these are very robust, and it is unlikely that a large airliner could penetrate the containment,” commission spokesman William Beecher said.

That view is disputed by the United-Nations-chartered International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Its spokesman said on Monday that reactors would likely be penetrated if an aircraft hit.

The view that reactors are vulnerable is echoed by independent safety experts, who say atomic power plants haven’t been built to survive an impact from modern, wide-bodied planes of the kind that were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“No nuclear plant anywhere in the world is designed against this kind of event,” said Gordon Thompson, executive director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies in Cambridge, Mass.

Although an airplane strike on a nuclear plant wouldn’t kill a lot of people immediately, a burning reactor would contaminate a wide area with radiation, as the Chernobyl plant in the former Soviet Union did in 1986.

Mr. Thompson said some plants in the United States can withstand strikes by planes lighter than those used in the attacks last week.

These plants, such as the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania, are near airport flight paths and were designed with slightly thicker concrete walls in their containment domes, but even these would be no match for a hit by a big plane.

He said military guards wouldn’t be much use in an air attack.


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