Nuclear Reaction

What happens if a suicide bomber drives a jumbo jet into one of America's 103 nuclear power reactors? What happens if a fire fed by thousands of tons of jet fuel roars through a reactor complex — or, worse, through the enormous and barely protected containment pools of spent nuclear fuel found at every such plant?

These questions are even more obvious and urgent than they may seem at first glance. Russian television reported the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: "Our (Russian) security services are warning the United States that what happened on Tuesday is just the beginning, and that the next target of the terrorists will be an American nuclear facility." (See Meanwhile, eight years ago, in the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, the terrorists themselves wrote to the New York Times to warn that nuclear attack would follow.

That letter, judged authentic by federal authorities, talked of "150 suicide soldiers" who would hit "nuclear targets." As if to drive home the point, those same terrorists had trained beforehand at a camp in Pennsylvania 30 miles from Three Mile Island. U.S. law enforcement had them under surveillance at least a month before they struck — and at one point observed them conducting a mock assault on an electric power substation. That very same weekend, a man later judged to be mentally unwell drove his station wagon through the security barriers at Three Mile Island and parked next to a supposedly secured building (See

There are nuclear power plants outside many urban areas. There's Indian Point on the Hudson River, some 25 miles northwest of New York City; Limerick Plant some 20 miles outside of Philadelphia; Calvert Cliffs, 45 miles from the nation's capital; and a handful of nuclear plants ringing Chicago, from Dresden to Braidwood. A terrorist strike at any such plant could not bring about a nuclear explosion — but there are a number of scenarios that would spread deadly radiation clouds across, in the NRC's famous phrase, an area the size of Pennsylvania. On top of the tens of thousands of eventual radiation-driven deaths, there is the mass panic such an attack might cause. And if we can clean up and rebuild after the World Trade Center bombing, a radiological attack would force us to write off huge swathes of land as national sacrifice areas.

So given the extraordinary events of Sept. 11, we're taking extraordinary measures to protect our nuclear plants, right?

Well, in France, the defense minister has stationed troops around nuclear power plants. But in America, not much is being done.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the day of the attacks in a statement said it had "recommended" that plants tighten security. Since then the plants have been put on a heightened state of alert with additional security guards and more frequent patrols, says Alan Madison, an NRC security official. Madison says that other measures are being taken, but he declined to specify what those measures were. (What about the Russian TV report? Or the repeated insistence by authorities that there are more terrorist cells out there?) The NRC also says there have been "no credible general or specific threats to any of these (nuclear) facilities" — and does not seem interested in reconsidering the specific and, it now seems, very credible 1993 threats of 150 suicide soldiers headed the NRC's way. Weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the NRC continues to assert that the nation's nuclear plants are not under any real threat. And they should know. "We share intelligence with the rest of the intelligence community," says Madison.

Security Already "Privatized"

David Orrik, a former U.S. Navy Seal, until recently ran a program for the NRC that tested the security at civilian nuclear plants by organizing mock attacks against them. His exercises don't sound terribly ambitious; they pit a small team, moving on foot, against a nuclear plant security force that would be warned six months in advance of the test. Even so, half of all plants tested failed — and in at least one case, Orrik's men were able to simulate enough sabotage to cause a core melt. And remember, these tests did not simulate, say, the Osama bin Laden truck bombs so successful in demolishing U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

The nuclear industry did not enjoy failing, and did not enjoy shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare for Orrik's tests — or to install security upgrades as the penalty for not passing. So it began to lean on the NRC to gut the program. This fall, the NRC is doing just that — phasing out Orrik's program in favor of one in which nuclear power plants will carry out "self-assessments."

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