ASHINGTON, Jan. 20 — If a terrorist attack on a
reactor released radiation, the timing and quantity of those
releases would be no different from those in an accident,
according to emergency planning officials and experts in
nuclear power who were recently involved in the first drill
involving just such a script.
Their view contradicts a central point in a report released
Jan. 10 concerning emergency planning at the Indian Point
nuclear power plant in Westchester County. That report, by
James Lee Witt, a former director of the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, set off a new round of controversy about
nuclear reactors and found that the Indian Point plans "do not
consider the possible additional ramifications of a
terrorist-caused release" and said such attacks would have
The plant's opponents argue that the reactors pose an
unacceptable risk in an age of terrorism. The Nuclear
Regulatory Commission defines risk as a combination of two
factors: the probability of an accident and its consequences.
No one claims to be able to predict the likelihood of a
terrorist attack, but it is now clear that emergency planners
and reactor experts believe that the consequences of a
radiation release from a terrorist attack would not be any
different from those in a serious accident.
"I would say it's about the same," said James E. Booker, a
consultant to the independent safety committee established by
California for the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. In October,
that plant became the first in the country to hold an
emergency drill based on a hypothetical terrorist attack
rather than an accident.
At the federal emergency office in Oakland, Calif., Richard
R. Echavarria, a technological hazards program specialist who
evaluated the Diablo Canyon drill, said that "terrorist
attacks are just another circumstance to generate the kind of
scenario they've been exercising." Mr. Echavarria also helped
evaluate the Indian Point drill, which was held in September,
a month before the California drill.
E. Gail de Planque, a former member of the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission who serves on the Diablo Canyon advisory
committee and attended the drill, said: "If you're going to
release radiation from the core, it wouldn't be any different.
It would be the same scenario, regardless of the cause."
Mr. Booker, who helped develop the emergency plan for a
reactor in Louisiana while he was a manager there, and Mr.
Echavarria, who said he had also been involved in drills in
Arizona and Washington, both said it would take multiple
failures to reach the point that radiation was released, no
matter what the nature of the event. They said a terrorist
attack was not likely to cause a leak any more quickly than an
accident. Other experts pointed out that the amount of
radioactive material available for release was the same in all
The Diablo Canyon drill was based on the premise that a
rogue employee at the plant blew up some pumps supplying
cooling water to the reactor. Combined with various mechanical
failures, that caused damage to the core, and, according to
the script, radiation escaped inside the containment dome and
then was released to the outside.
In the test, while plant workers were trying to cope with
the loss of the pumps and various mechanical failures, they
were told that a car bomb had been detonated near a power line
and that a small plane had crashed into a substation, in what
appeared to be a coordinated effort to cut off electricity
needed to cool the reactor.
In the script for the drill, the plant began releasing
radiation about two hours after the pumps were bombed.
George M. Brown, the emergency services coordinator for San
Luis Obispo, where the plant is situated, said there was no
reason to think a terrorist attack would be more sudden than
other disasters, like earthquakes.
People with long experience in plant drills said this was
the first in which terrorism played a major role. The scenario
was written by the plant owner, Pacific Gas and Electric, at
the request of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The drills
are normally concocted to test the ability of plant officials
to work with nearly public safety officials; this one was also
supposed to test cooperation with a new participant, the
Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Arguments on both sides of the question — that there is
nothing fundamentally different about a nuclear release begun
by terrorism, as well as Mr. Witt's contention of the opposite
— are untested, since there has never been a release resulting
from a terrorist attack. And in the 23 years since the
emergency planning requirements were established, there have
been hardly any from accidents, either. Those requirements
were set up soon after the Three Mile Island accident in March
1979 and have very rarely required any action outside the
The consensus among members of the nuclear commission and
other government officials involved in emergency planning is
that if a plan is adequate for accident protection, it would
be equally applicable to terrorist attacks.
But Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is a sponsor of a
bill to set higher requirements for plant security, said the
problem might not be a difference between accidents and
sabotage. "According to the Witt report, the plans are
inadequate, period, whether you're talking about accident or
attack," she said. "That doesn't give me any comfort."
Mrs. Clinton added that officials probably had a better
idea of the range of possible accidents than of the range of