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.
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,"
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,"
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
do you think?
Michael Scherer is Mother Jones' Washington