September 26, 2001
Critics say the industry is in denial on the threat of airborne attack OTTAWA (CP) — Canada’s nuclear power plants have stepped up security since the terrorist attacks in the U.S., and the nuclear industry is facing tough questions about the vulnerability of reactors.
A spokesman for the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the federal agency that oversees nuclear safety, is playing down concerns, saying there is no identified terrorist threat against Canada.
But critics say the industry is in denial about the threat of airborne attack, which the reactors were never designed to withstand.
Canada’s 22 reactors were placed on “enhanced security” within hours of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, said commission spokesman James Levesque.
He declined for security reasons to say what measures were taken.
“The information we’re getting from the federal people who do intelligence is that there is at this time no identified threat against Canada,” said Levesque.
Atomic Energy of Canada has imposed a secure air space of 3,000 feet and 3.5 nautical miles around its research campus at Chalk River, Ont., said spokeswoman Louise Duhamel.
Any aircraft must request permission to come within that space.
The Crown corporation is in contact with the RCMP and CSIS on a daily basis, said Duhamel. It has also halted all public tours and visits to the Chalk River facility.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has conceded that its reactors are vulnerable to airline crashes, but Canadian officials are not making such admissions.
Pat Breton, a spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale, would say only that security of the reactors is under review.
“On the issue of, `Could it withstand an attack similar to the World Trade Center?’, the president of the (Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) has assured us that the measures in place are adequate but are under evaluation.
“Up until Sept. 11 that sort of thing wasn’t contemplated, so that evaluation is ongoing.”
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ordered “increased patrols, augmented security forces and capabilities, additional security posts and . . . limited access of personnel and vehicles to sites.”
Two U.S. watchdog groups, the Nuclear Control Institute and the Committee to Bridge the Gap, have called for armed troops and anti-aircraft weapons to be deployed around reactors.
The fear is that an airborne attack could rupture the containment buildings designed to isolate radioactive materials in the event of a spill.
“You’d have millions of people potentially exposed to radioactivity,” said a source with experience in the Canadian nuclear industry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“If it’s in the drinking water supply, you’d have a disaster of unimaginable magnitude.”
The source said reactors should be defended by ground-to-air missiles capable of intercepting any aircraft entering their secure air space.
“It might have sounded crazy a few weeks ago but it’s not crazy. An unidentified flying object that comes into a secure air space would be blown up.”
The new security measures are bound to increase costs for nuclear operators, and will add to the debate about the economics of nuclear power.
A spokesman for the Office for Critical Infrastructure Protection, a federal agency concerned with emergency preparedness, declined to comment on whether nuclear reactors are adequately protected.
“The plants are privately run, they’re run by provincial authorities and provincial corporations and the actual physical security is the responsibility of the operator,” said Max London.