The ever-vigilant Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued milestone regulations requiring the builders of new nuke reactors to explain how their plants might withstand the crash of large commercial jetliners.
But the NRC has exempted the reactors that matter most – the 104 licensed to operate RIGHT NOW. As you read this, jets hitting any of them could kill untold thousands of us and render entire regions of our nation permanently uninhabitable.
But requiring current reactor owners to do what's now expected of future ones would apparently be an unsupportable burden.
All reactors would shut immediately without federal limits to their owners' liability for the incalculable death and destruction that could come from a stricken nuke.
The first jet to crash into the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 flew DIRECTLY over the one dead and two operating reactors at Indian Point, 45 miles up the Hudson, plus the three spent fuel pools there. Terrorists close to the attack – including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – have confirmed that reactors were originally targeted, but they changed their minds "for the moment."
This is the NRC's first significant public nod to ANY structural responsibility for such a catastrophe.
But the regulations say taxpayers must pay to prevent such attacks, not the industry. So far, not a single US reactor has any form of anti-aircraft protection, federal, state or otherwise, and many doubt they'd work anyway.
After 9/11 a bitter debate raged over the ability of American reactors to withstand jet crashes. Not one was required to do so, most importantly the fragile General Electric Mark I and Mark II designs installed at more than a third of US reactors. "We have not analyzed what would happen if a 767 crashed into a reactor," according to the Commission's Neil Sheehan. "Until we've done that, we can't say with certainty that they could withstand it."
NRC Chairman Dale Klein recently told CNBC a jet would "bounce off" a reactor containment dome. The industry uses a visually dramatic crash of an F-4 Phantom jet into a movable wall at the Sandia National Laboratory to "prove" its containments are "robust." But the crash test "proves nothing, since the wall was not attached to the ground and was displaced nearly six feet," says the Nuclear Control Institute's Scientific Director Bernard Lyman. The Sandia test report says "the major portion of the impact energy went into movment of the target and not in producing structural damage." The Phantom's fuel tanks were filled with water, not jet fuel, and its total weight was about 5% of a 767. The wall was 12 feet thick, as opposed to 3.5 for a reactor containment dome.
Crash tremors at existing reactors could easily compromise cooling, electrical, safety, communication and other critical components without a containment breach. Human operators have not been realistically trained to run a control room after surviving – maybe – the impact's shock waves.
As at Three Mile Island, radiation can – and does – escape en masse from stacks, outtake pipes and elsewhere around the reactor structure with no containment breach. Nobody knows what prolonged jet fuel fires would do to the already super-heated cores and cooling water.
Nearby pools and dry casks overbrimming with immensely radioactive used fuel rods are sitting ducks. Some are inside the containments. But most sit open to small-scale attack, let alone a jet crash.
The core radiation inside American commercial reactors can exceed by a thousand-fold what was released at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After a half-century of operation, eight years after 9/11, the official NRC admission that jets crashing into future reactors demand a structural response is long overdue. It confirms that every atomic power plant is a potential target for terror and error, a pre-deployed weapon of radioactive mass destruction.
"President Obama should replace the Bush-appointed Chairman of the NRC with an individual who will address the threat rather than lie about the vulnerability of nuclear reactors and their wastes to terrorist attack," says Greenpeace's Jim Riccio.
At very least the new administration should demand that the new regulations for proposed new reactors must now be applied to the ones actually operating.
If it can't be done, the nuke power industry should tell us why.
Comment by: auntiegrav (auntiegrav) (Mar-6-2009)
One of the first things people who go "off grid" learn is how much they can do without. Especially if they put up minimum solar panels or windmill. This is the kind of thinking that we have to instill collectively so that we stop trying to 'replace' the current power grid which mostly is used for things we don't really need. We have huge power loads for making aluminum which is mostly used in places like food wraps, shiny auto parts, rocket fuel, etc: all things that can be done with less power by other means or done without.
It's the consumption itself that is the problem, not the method of production. We didn't used to be like this.
Comment by: PT (David Alexander) (Mar-6-2009) Web site
The overall corruption of collective debate and decision-making has allowed nuclear to continue to be considered despite its great cost and ultimate great dangers. If we actually got in gear and worked on implementing all the renewable energy strategies (while also working on living with a smaller overall footprint), we would be far better off than trying to build "safe" nuclear power plants and finding "safe" long-term storage for radioactive waste.
However, the actual risk of attack is not as great as it seems. 9/11 happened because the government LET it happen, if not actively MAKING it happen by interfering with the normal intercept procedures of the military/FAA system. It was not just lucky chance that fighter jets didn't respond. They have constantly responded before 9/11/01 and after. The system USED to work, then it didn't, then it does again.
The risk of nuke plants lies in their very existence. Implying that we should do something to make them safer is ignoring that very real risk of human responsibility for big, stupid ideas. Hiring the best engineering and construction to make nuke plants is just hiring the best doctors to put leeches on the hemophiliac.
"Anyone who thinks they can make something completely foolproof has never met a complete fool." -Douglas Adams
Comment by: City Worker (Mar-5-2009)
Hmm. Scary. I hope the NRC is working surreptitiously to made DAMN SURE everything is all right.
Free Press Senior Editor and "Superpower of Peace" columnist Harvey Wasserman is author or co-author of a dozen books including SOLARTOPIA! Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030; Harvey Wasserman's History of the U.S.; and, A Glimpse of the Big Light: Losing Parents, Finding Spirit.
With Bob Fitrakis, Harvey has helped expose the theft of the presidency. Their freepress.org coverage has prompted Rev. Jesse Jackson to call them "the Woodward and Bernstein of the 2004 election." Their books include How the GOP Stole America's 2004 Election & Is Rigging 2008, and What Happened in Ohio?, coming soon from the New Press.
Harvey's widespread appearances throughout the major media and at campuses and citizen gatherings have focussed since the 1960s on energy, environment, peace, justice, U.S. history and election protection.