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  nuclear, security, arms, war, terror, terrorists, politics, Washington, regulation, regulators, reactors, uranium
The Nuclear Industry's Dirty Bombs

Regulators and industry are ignoring a major security weakness, critics say, one that could be exploited by terrorists.

National Guard troops on patrol at Arizona's Palo Verde Reactor.


By the time the first bombs fell over Baghdad last Wednesday, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano had already deployed National Guard troops to protect the Palo Verde nuclear plant 50 miles west of Phoenix. Increased numbers of guards were walking the grounds, surrounded by razor wire, steel barriers and water-filled moat. A Black Hawk helicopter, on loan from the federal government, patrolled the skies.

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The reason became public on Thursday when Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said recent intelligence had identified these reactors as a possible terrorist target. It was not the first time America's 65 nuclear power plants had raised alarms. Last year, two Al Qaeda operatives told Al Jazeera that "a couple of US nuclear facilities" had been on the short list for the September 11 attacks. After the war in Afghanistan, President Bush announced that "diagrams of American nuclear power plants" had been found among suspected terrorists' belongings.

Over the past two years, experts have drawn attention to a number of potential flaws in reactor security, including a lack of properly trained security guards. But now, a growing number of nuclear-safety advocates are arguing that an even greater danger comes from another, lesser-known risk.

For decades, reactor operators have deposited their used nuclear fuel in increasingly dense pools of water located on site. The highly radioactive material remains stable as long as the water tank is full. But if the pool were to drain, as it could if a storage building were damaged by an airplane crash, a missile attack, or even a well-placed explosive, the fuel could catch fire with potentially catastrophic consequences.

"This is the most consequential vulnerability of nuclear power in the country, and that is not a secret," says Bob Alvarez, a former senior advisor to the Department of Energy who worked on emergency preparedness. Spent fuel pools generally less well protected than the reactors' cores, he notes, and they are often located in unreinforced storage buildings. Yet they often contain far more radioactivity than the reactor core, since they hold the detritus from decades of nuclear energy production. "They could release 5 to 10 times more radioactivity than a nuclear reactor meltdown," Alvarez said.

A 1997 study commissioned by the NRC found that such a fire could cause as many as 143,000 cancer deaths and force the government to condemn between 800 and 2700 square miles of land. More recently, a study of the Indian Point reactors near New York City found that a severe fuel pool fire could make as much a 37,000 square miles uninhabitable, an area roughly 75 percent the size of New York state. "The threat environment is enormous," says Gordon Thompson, a nuclear safety expert and longtime industry critic.

At Palo Verde alone, roughly 1,200 metric tons of spent uranium is kept in three above-ground pools of water. Other plants' stockpiles range from 200 to 2,000 tons. Earlier this year, concern about the storage pools led a committee of scientists based at Princeton University, including both Alvarez and Thompson, to propose a sweeping remedy: transferring the fuel to heavily fortified concrete casks, which would be much less vulnerable to terrorist attack. The cost is estimated at between $3.5 and $7 billion dollars, depending on thickness of the casks. The costs could be raised by adding no more than .06 cents per kilowatt hour to the cost of nuclear electricity.

But the industry has dismissed the proposal, saying that the cost is out of line with what it considers a highly unlikely disaster scenario. Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the trade group Nuclear Energy Institute, called the threat of a spent fuel fire "a far out, hypothetical situation," noting that backup measures like fire hoses might be used to keep cracked pools from losing water. "The intimation that the spent fuel pools are not safe is just wrong," Singer said.

Others like Per Peterson, director of the nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley, worry that the money might be better spent on other vulnerabilities, like new technologies that would make it impossible for planes to be used in terrorist attacks. "One has to balance this against all the other risks that we have," Peterson said.

For its part, the NRC has refused to consider the risk of terrorism in reviews of spent fuel pools. "The possibility of a terrorist attack," the commission explained in a recent order, "is speculative and simply too far removed from the natural or expected consequences of agency action to require a study."

Critics acknowledge that the risk of a successful attack is difficult to estimate. But they also question the wisdom of ignoring scenarios that, while less likely than accidents caused by technical failure or human error, could have grave consequences. "What the NRC has set up is a model to address the Homer Simpson scenario instead of the Bin Ladin scenario," says Alvarez. He points to other countries, like Germany and Switzerland, where spent fuel is stored in hardened concrete casks that are often protected by concrete buildings or buried in hillsides.

In the end, the decision over what to do with spent fuel will be left to Congress, which has shown some recent concern over nuclear reactor safety. At a hearing earlier this month, Congressman Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said that the current approach to protecting people from attacks on nuclear reactors "scares the heck out of me."

"They remain significantly vulnerable to terrorist attack," Shays explained. "The terrorists know how vulnerable these sites are."

At the same time, however, the nuclear industry has long been a major Washington lobbying force. Electric utilities gave federal politicians and their parties more than $19 million in the 2002 election cycle, including $467,624 from NEI, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Advocates blame the industry's influence for a string of federal actions to relax nuclear safety rules in recent years; since 1998, the number of safety inspectors required at at each nuclear plant has shrunk by at least 25 percent, according to David Lochbaum, who studies nuclear safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Still, a coalition of anti-nuclear activists, scientists, and public interest groups plan to meet in Washington to begin lobbying for new nuclear-safety rules that would address the risk of attacks. "It's complete madness," says Deb Katz, director of the Citizens Awareness Network, an advocacy group, "that [the NRC] won't address terrorism." . What do you think?

Michael Scherer is Mother Jones' Washington Editor.

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Photo: Associated Press/Wide World Photos
This article has been made possible by the Foundation for National Progress, the Investigative Fund of Mother Jones, and gifts from generous readers like you.

2003 The Foundation for National Progress

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