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Nuclear Power Plants in
the Age of Terrorism: Safer Than Many Think
Nuclear Power Plants in the Age of Terrorism: Safer Than Many Think
Anxiety over a potential terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant has been frequently expressed in recent days. But is this source of abundant, environmentally-friendly energy an attractive target for terrorists?
The greatest danger could well be panic caused by sensationalized reporting, not radiation.
Let's look at the worst terrorists could do.
The crash of a large airliner into a reactor is on everyone's mind. A reasonable speculation is that a direct hit by one of the heavy engines (requiring incredibly precise aiming by the pilot) could split the nuclear plant's reinforced concrete containment. (The rest of an aircraft is very soft, and would splatter like an egg.) However, merely cracking the containment would not inflict serious damage inside. To do that, either the engine must fall in (instead of being deflected), or enough jet fuel would have to spill in to burn in a serious fire. Even then, the heavy steel reactor pressure vessel would probably be undamaged, because it is surrounded and protected by thick concrete radiation shielding.
The only way that much radioactivity could be spread is if a steam explosion were to occur. The only conceivable causes could be either a runaway overpower or complete loss of cooling. We know of no credible way that the crashing airliner could cause an overpower. The worst that could be expected is what is known as a "blowdown," where a main cooling-water pipe is ruptured by the falling aircraft engine, and the pressurized water turns to steam. Under these circumstances, the chain reaction would simply shut down.
However, if the emergency core-cooling system was also disrupted, the ability to cool the core of the shut-down reactor could be lost. While a steam explosion in a current power reactor resulting from complete loss of cooling cannot be theoretically ruled out, it is no longer considered realistic by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - even when evaluating "worst case" scenarios.
We can forget about steam explosions.
What could happen, if an engine fell in and all cooling were lost? Some of the fuel would probably melt. After a few hours it might work through the reactor vessel, spread out and solidify down below. Some fraction of the more volatile radioactive material might escape to the atmosphere. However, with a timely, temporary evacuation, in accordance with the site's emergency plan, no serious off-site exposure to radiation should occur.
There are two other potential targets at a typical reactor site: spent fuel in dry storage and in wet storage. The dry-storage casks are made of concrete or thick steel. If directly hit by a jetliner, a few of them might break, but the ensuing fire could not disperse a large amount of radioactivity. Nevertheless, temporary local evacuation might be called for.
The storage pools used for fresher spent fuel are somewhat more vulnerable, although they are not pushovers. Nonetheless, a jetliner considerably smaller than a 767 might be sufficient to disrupt one. This alone might make the pool a more attractive target than the reactor itself.
So nuclear plants are low-payoff targets.
There is a way to virtually eliminate the damage potential of the storage pools: the Yucca Mountain repository in New Mexico should promptly be opened as an interim storage facility, and the spent fuel currently in pools beside reactors should be moved to storage pools in this secure, underground location. Transportation in "wet" casks would be a very low-risk operation, although probably there are not now enough casks to allow a complete, expeditious transfer. Thus some hardening of the storage pools might be wise, and as much fuel as possible should be in the less-vulnerable dry-storage type of cask.
Yucca Mountain should be considered an interim storage facility because reprocessing spent reactor fuel should be reconsidered in light of new, proliferation-resistant technologies. Re-using spent fuel in fast reactors is very attractive - what otherwise would need to be stored for ten thousand years is now consumable fuel, and the residual waste is harmless in 500 years.
Given the instability near the Persian Gulf and the fragility of the Saudi monarchy, oil shipments could soon be disrupted. The less we depend on this oil the better. In the long run, fossil fuels are limited - nuclear power is not. We should not allow uncalled-for panic, politics, or political correctness to curtail the safe use of nuclear power.
by Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford
Gerald Marsh is a physicist who served with the U.S. START delegation and was a consultant to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on strategic nuclear policy and technology for many years. George Stanford is a nuclear reactor physicist, now retired from Argonne National Laboratory after a career of experimental work pertaining to power-reactor safety. This article is taken from a longer paper on this topic by Marsh and Stanford, available at http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA374.html.
[Editor's note: Author George Stanford will appear on a Townhall.com live chat about this issue on Wednesday, November 14 at 8 PM ET at http://www.townhall.com/chat/#stanford.]
Listen to Veterans on ANWR
This week marks the 83rd celebration of Veteran's Day, and millions of Americans will pause to reflect on all of the sacrifices these brave men and women in uniform have made to protect our way of life. This year, those events and celebrations will be especially poignant as we consider the acts of heroism by a new generation of men and women defending us in Afghanistan.
However, our duty to honor American veterans doesn't end on November 13. As the terrorist attacks on September 11 make clear, a commitment to our men and women in uniform should be a year 'round activity. Those that are willing to sacrifice their own lives to protect you and me are a breed above and should be treated as such.
Our heroes who used to wear a uniform have a lot to offer America if we're willing to accept their counsel. Recently a group of veterans formed a new organization to plead for the Senate to reconsider its opposition to exploring in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But are we listening?
Two weeks ago, leaders of the American Legion, Vietnam Veterans Institute, Veterans of Foreign Wars, AMVETS, Gold Star Wives of America, Catholic War Veterans and Survivors of Pearl Harbor (which represent over 5 million veterans nationwide) came to Washington to urge Senator Daschle to recognize the security implications of our nation's foreign energy dependence.
America imports nearly 60 percent of its oil. Is it any wonder that analysts all around are starting to see the inherent dangers in this policy? Former CIA Director James Woolsey says that we're going to have to do soul searching to find out why we didn't see September 11 coming and prevent it. At a minimum, he argues, we must re-examine our reliance on Middle East oil. And as Senator Stevens of Alaska notes, "There is no question today, because of the security crisis we face and our dependence upon foreign oil, the oil from Alaska's North Slope is a national security issue." Last week President Bush ordered 70 million barrels of oil be put into the National Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
Even now as our troops fight in Afghanistan, we are reminded of the consequences of our Middle East energy dependence. Former President Ronald Reagan said that facts are stubborn things. Here are several really stubborn facts to think about: a contemporary 17,500-soldier U.S. Army armored division uses twice as much oil daily than an entire 200,000-soldier field army did during World War II. Also, today the Department of Defense accounts for nearly 80 percent of all U.S. government energy use. And finally, today's modern soldier requires eight times the amount of oil as his WWII counterpart 50 years ago.
Despite this, some of the same stale arguments are being repeated as excuses to prevent ANWR's use. We are told over and over again that exploration is incompatible with environmentalism. And unfortunately, the issue has even turned partisan. When the pipeline in Alaska was first created, there was bipartisan support. Serious-minded men like Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson understood the national security implications of energy dependence. During the debate on the Alaska oil pipeline amendment, Senator Jackson, then Energy Committee Chairman, acknowledged that construction of the pipeline "involves a national security issue." He said, There is no serious question today that it is urgently in the national interest to start North Slope oil flowing to markets." As the veterans remind us, how much more so is this true today? Senator Daschle and a handful of Senate Democrats are single-handedly preventing the proposal from passing.
Even after nearly 30 years and over 13 billion barrels of oil, there is more than 4 times the number of caribou in that area of Alaska compared to the years before the oil pipeline. Apparently, taking it on faith without regard to the evidence, we still hear from those who claim that exploration is environmentally unsafe. The evidence is in. As the recent judgement in the Exxon Valdez reminds us, the pipeline is a far safer and environmentally friendlier way to transport oil.
What does our unwillingness to meet more of our own energy needs tell many of the countries we're calling on for assistance in the war against terrorism? Aren't we sending mixed signals by allowing foreign governments to have so much influence on the American economy and our foreign policy? And how do we honor our veterans if we ignore their advice and thereby put at risk a new generation of soldiers? Senator Daschle, we're waiting for a response.
by Horace Cooper
Horace Cooper is a national advisory council member of the African-American leadership group Project 21, a senior fellow of the Centre for New Black Leadership and a Capitol Hill staff member.