Nuclear Power & Terrorism

Matt Bivens
The Nation
October 24, 2001

Go to the website of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and you’ll find an apology for how thin the information is there. On October 11 the website was closed; now bits and pieces are slowly re-emerging. Susan Gagner, an NRC press spokeswoman, says the site is being “scrubbed” of information that might be useful to terrorists. She said the NRC had been asked to take that action by “another government agency,” but would not say which one. Another NRC spokesman told Reuters they were removing, for example, latitude and longitude coordinates of nuclear reactors, plant schematics and so on. Note that a full month after September 11, the NRC had to be told to do this by someone else!

Well, better late than never. As The Nation has reported, the terrorists who in 1993 bombed the World Trade Center trained beforehand at a remote site not thirty miles from Three Mile Island — and afterward threatened to send 150 suicide bombers into America’s nuclear plants. [See “Nuclear Safety,” September 16]. Given that Al Qaeda terrorists active in America have been thinking about nuclear terrorism for eight years now, it seems likely that much of the NRC’s now-secret information–assuming it was of interest and is not still obtainable on any AAA road map–was downloaded long ago.

In any case, one needs minimal inspiration from the NRC website to brainstorm half-a-dozen ways a handful of motivated individuals could turn a nuclear power plant into an American Chernobyl. (Or forty-four Chernobyls. That’s the sort of deadly radiation cloud New Scientist magazine predicts England and Ireland would see if a commercial jetliner plowed into the spent fuel pool of Britain’s Sellafield plant. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., Sellafield’s parent company, called the report “irresponsible.”)

The 1986 fire at Chernobyl threw radiation across Ukraine, Belarus and much of Europe. The death-and-injury toll is a matter of debate; of 300 volunteer firefighters who immediately showed up to battle the six-day blaze, thirty-one were dead within the week. As the fire burned on, thousands more volunteers arrived, but estimates vary as to how many died how rapidly. The Ukrainian government this year estimated that more than 4,000 of those volunteer firefighters have since died a young death, and that more than 70,000 Ukrainians have been “disabled” by radiation sicknesses. The radiation has also created national sacrifice areas in Ukraine and Belarus, where hundreds of thousands deserted their homes in minutes, many of them never to return. Kiev has declared an area the size of the Netherlands unsuitable for agriculture; in neighboring Belarus, nearly a quarter of all farmland is contaminated, and the Health Ministry recorded a 161 percent increase in birth defects in babies born between 1986 and 1993. The World Health Organization says thousands of children have contracted or will contract thyroid cancer over the next decades, an ailment treatable with medication if caught early enough.

US government action is being taken to defend some of America’s 104 nuclear power plants from such a fate. National Guardsmen have been called out to patrol some reactors, and others along the Great Lakes are being watched by the Coast Guard. But the NRC remains tight-lipped and looks like a spectator–in public never moving from its initial September 11 “recommendation” that commercial nuclear plants adopt high-level security–while state governors, national security officials and Congressional critics drive the action.

The NRC could demand or order instead of just recommending. But it has not done so–even when its recommendation looks to have been ignored. For example, it took well over a month after the World Trade Center fell–and weeks of complaints by citizens, media and politicians–before the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant could be bothered to post a guard and a gate at the road leading into its complex. Maine Yankee is being “decommissioned,” but it’s still home to an enormous pool of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel. A spokesman for Maine Yankee, Eric House, said that despite the complaints that the place looked like a ghost town, security has been there all along–just “focused” on the metal warehouse over the spent fuel pool. Some locals say they’ve heard there are armed men inside that building, but House would not comment on that. So there’s no way for the public to know whether those armed men have increased in number since September 11; or whether they could handle five or ten or twenty armed kamikaze terrorists; or what they could do to prevent, say, a truck bomb from trundling through the open gate, parking next to the pool house and then making most of Maine uninhabitable after it blows up.

NRC officials counter that there has been no “specific or credible” threat to Maine Yankee, or to any other American nuclear plant. Apparently they were waiting for delivery of an Osama-gram with a big hissing fuse attached. And apparently they finally received something like that on Wednesday, when the NRC announced that a “credible” threat had been made “very specifically” against Three Mile Island. (So just as someone called them to tell them to clean up their website, someone–the CIA? the terrorists?–called them to suggest they look to Three Mile Island.) No details were offered, but some Pennsylvania airports were closed for several hours. By Thursday, the threat was “no longer credible.”

There is nothing new in this lackadaisical approach to nuclear plant security. Daniel Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap–the gap in question being that between the public and the jargon-filled world of nuclear power–has recounted how he and others spent a dismaying fifteen years trying to get the NRC to insist on forcing the power plants it licenses simply to set up barriers to potential truck bombs. In 1982, after a suicide bomber killed 241 US Marines stationed in Lebanon, the NRC began to hear Hirsch’s pleas, and to re-examine its 1970s-era security regulations for nuclear facilities. Those rules required that reactors be prepared for the following worst-case scenario: three lightly armed attackers moving together on foot, assisted by a fourth attacker inside the plant’s work force. No cars, no planes, no grenades, no truck bombs, no gases, no multiple teams.

According to a paper Hirsch wrote in the mid-1980s, NRC safeguards staff saw post-Lebanon truck bombs as a serious danger, and in 1984 publicized their intent to put out new rules. The NRC contracted with the Sandia National Laboratories to study the truck-bomb threat–and Sandia concluded that it was worse than all had feared. A reasonable-sized charge set back beyond even the protected area for most plants could cause “unacceptable damage.” (In other words, it could rip things apart sufficiently to cause reactor safety systems to fail, radiological releases, etc.–the sort of thing that a 1982 US Congressional Committee study had just concluded might bring thousands of fatalities, millions of poisonings and billions of dollars in damages.)

Oddly, Hirsch writes, two weeks after they got that terrifying Sandia research back, the NRC postponed all action on a new truck-bomb-defense ruling–“pending the results of research.” If it’s more dangerous than ever, why postpone? Hirsch writes that the NRC was taken aback at the cost to the industry of real security and plunged into a paralyzing internal debate. “As long as the proposed NRC truck-bomb rule involved only a few extra concrete barricades on-site, the cost to the licensees [nuclear power plants] would have been minimal and the political cost to the NRC acceptable,” he wrote. “When research revealed that the problem was considerably more serious than previously thought and the solution therefore more expensive, the regulatory agency apparently felt it could not afford to require action proportionate to the problem.” Other government agencies were all putting in truck-bomb-defense policies (at taxpayer expense); the NRC contented itself with studying truck-bomb-defense policies rather than requiring them.

In 1993, nine years later, after talk of new rules had begun, a deranged man drove his station wagon through the gates of Three Mile Island, crashing it into the turbine building and disappearing for four hours. Weeks later, terrorists tied to Al Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center, and afterward wrote to the New York Times that they would send 150 suicide bombers against US nuclear targets.

Suddenly Hirsch and others who had written about security weaknesses at nuclear plants–among them Paul Leventhal of the Nuclear Control Institute and Bennett Ramberg, author of Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy: An Unrecognized Military Peril–found their truck-bomb fears shared by Congress. Under pressure, the NRC and the industry built new truck-bomb defenses.

But other concerns of Leventhal, Ramberg and Hirsch–for example, the danger of terrorists infiltrating a nuclear plant’s work force — were less satisfactorily handled. All three participated in a post-September 11 press conference in Washington to advocate, among other things, US military troops and antiaircraft weaponry posted at every nuclear facility. They also called for plant operators to aggressively recheck employee backgrounds, and for a government moratorium on plans to ship spent nuclear fuel to a central depository tentatively planned for Yucca Mountain, Nevada–a plan critics deride as “mobile Chernobyl.”

Is that really what it takes to protect nuclear plants? If so, then some see in this a logical conclusion, and new currency for an old argument: that nuclear power is incompatible with democratic freedoms. If one has to scrub the websites, polygraph the employees, call out the guard and shoot down civilian aircraft that stray too close–does that sound like the USA, or the USSR?

And if it sounds too Soviet, then isn’t it more sensible to just shut the nuclear plants down?

The Belgian government thinks so, and promises a bill by December 2002 to phase out its seven nuclear power reactors. Germany has already inked such a deal, and plans to replace the lost energy capacity with offshore windmill parks. It’s easier than one might think. In America, despite all of the billions invested in it, nuclear power provides a mere fifth of the nation’s electricity–far less than what five leading national laboratories say could be saved almost immediately with a national energy efficiency program, one that could unfold with most citizens never even noticing.

Given this logic, it’s not hard to see why the industry would be in a state of denial about security: The very discussion is a lethal Pandora’s box. Perhaps this is why a full month after September 11 the gates to Maine Yankee lay open, the NRC website was still packed with design schemata, and it was up to governors, not slow-moving NRC officials, to call out the guard. A clear-eyed discussion of how to defend these plants just might conclude that they are indefensible.

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