U.S. nuclear reactors vulnerable, panel says

Martin Mittelstaedt
Globe and Mail
September 26, 2001

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says atomic power stations in the United States could be vulnerable to attacks by airliners used as missiles, but Canadian nuclear authorities are refusing to comment on whether domestic reactors are similarly at risk.

The NRC, the U.S. atomic watchdog agency, issued a statement on Friday saying that nuclear generating plants are designed to withstand extreme events, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, but not terrorist strikes of the kind the United States experienced on Sept. 11.

The statement was issued because of the concern that terrorists might target atomic plants next.

“What would happen if a large commercial airliner was intentionally crashed into a nuclear plant?” the commission asked. “The NRC did not specifically contemplate attacks by aircraft such as Boeing 757s or 767s and nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes.”

The commission initially denied that stations were at risk from air attacks after hijacked passenger planes were crashed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. However, international nuclear safety authorities disputed that claim, and the NRC later admitted its earlier comments were wrong.

Canadian nuclear authorities are refusing to comment on whether the thick concrete and steel containment domes around domestic reactors are any more secure against attack than the similar structures used in U.S. stations.

“What we’re saying is the units are designed with earthquakes and impact considerations,” said John Earl, spokesman for Ontario Power Generation, the country’s biggest nuclear operator.

But he refused to comment on how a reactor would fare if struck by a big plane.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, this country’s atomic industry watchdog, refused to comment on whether stations could handle an airplane strike, or whether it has acted on a request by Energy Probe, an environmental think tank, for atomic facilities to be guarded by the military.

“I’m not going to talk about specific incidents,” said Jim Leveque, the commission’s spokesman.

Nuclear-safety critics say the stations are huge sitting ducks for terrorist attacks because any strike that disables a station’s emergency shut-down system could lead to a reactor meltdown.

If the meltdown caused radioactivity to escape, it could render huge areas uninhabitable for decades, causing a major economic catastrophe.

In the United States, nuclear critics are also urging beefed up protection at atomic stations. The Nuclear Control Institute, a Washington non-proliferation group, has asked for National Guard troops and air defences to be placed around stations, but it hasn’t had a response.

“As a first step, security against ground attack should be immediately and permanently stepped up,” said Tom Clements, the institute’s executive director.

He said the admission that a station could not handle a big air crash also is troubling. “If the reactors and associated key buildings can’t be protected against a credible threat, then there must be a discussion about the status of those facilities,” he said.

The NRC said that detailed engineering analyses of what a large airliner crash might do to a reactor complex have not yet been performed.

Like their Canadian counterparts, many U.S. nuclear plant owners are storing highly radioactive spent fuel around their stations in concrete storage bins.

The NRC said the ability of the bins to take a direct hit from an airliner hasn’t been analyzed, but it said that if one were breached, it believed the impact would only affect the surrounding area.

 

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