POWER POINTS: Airplane Attack Exposes Nuclear Plant Myth
By Mark Golden
A Dow Jones Newswires Column

NEW YORK (Dow Jones)--In the heat of the moment Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's chief spokesman told several reporters that the country's nuclear power plants were designed to withstand a direct hit by an airliner.

For decades people in the nuclear power industry have occasionally said the same thing, and the desire to calm fears Tuesday is understandable. But the claim, unfortunately, isn't true. Instead, it's the nuclear power industry's equivalent of an urban myth. Nuclear power plants weren't built to withstand the crash of a commercial airliner. Such an event would most likely be disastrous and, if it happened near a large city, the consequences could dwarf the events of this week.

"Nuclear power plants aren't explicitly designed for the crash of large commercial aircraft of the type involved in this week's events," William Beecher, the director of public affairs for the NRC, conceded Friday.

The last barrier to nuclear disaster is the containment building, which houses the reactor vessel, where uranium pellets heat water, producing steam to drive generator turbines. The NRC and the nuclear power industry have made much of the fact that containment walls are constructed of steel-reinforced concrete 4 feet to 5 feet thick. Though not specifically designed for the job, those walls would probably hold back a crashing airliner, Beecher said.

"The prestressed concrete containments are so robust that it is unlikely that a large commercial aircraft would penetrate," he said.

That view, however, is likely too hopeful.

The containment building walls are 4 feet to 5 feet thick only at the base of the containment structure, said Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, a moderate organization that opposes construction of more nuclear power plants and pushes greater security for the existing fleet. Reactor containment walls are typically only 1.5 feet to 2.5 feet thick at the domed top, he said. Study Shows Vulnerability

A 1974 study by General Electric, a major builder of power plants, shows that if a plant sustained the kind of hit that the Pentagon building took Tuesday, the containment wall almost certainly would break.

The GE study estimated that if a "heavy" airliner traveling at cruising speed hit a nuclear reactor building at the 6-foot-thick base, the chances of it breaking through the wall would be 32%. If it hit the wall where the thickness is only 2 feet, the probability of perforation climbs to 84%. At a thickness of 1.5 feet, penetration is certain.

In such a scenario, a substantial section of container wall collapses almost every time, and significant damage would be sustained by the reactor core, cooling system and emergency cooling system.

Worse, the GE study's definition of "heavy" was anything more than 6.25 tons.

The airliners used Tuesday weighed more than 150 tons, fully loaded. The cruising speed of GE's six-ton plane wasn't specified, but it likely was nowhere near as fast as the 600-mile-per-hour speed of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Finally, based on what was seen Tuesday, the GE study seems to have underestimated the impact of thousands of gallons of ignited jet fuel on a nuclear power plant.

"It's almost certain that the plant would be destroyed, and the core would melt, and you would have catastrophic consequences," Leventhal said. "The core of a 1,000-megawatt power plant has 1,000 times more radioactive material than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima."

There wouldn't be an explosion, Leventhal explained. But if the reactor core melted, intensely radioactive material would be released in a plume.

Casualties Would Be Horrific

A successful attack near a major city might not produce as many immediate fatalities as Tuesday's attacks, but cancer caused by the release of radiation would ultimately claim tens of thousands of lives, Leventhal said. Moreover, the panic that would ensue in the evacuation of a major city on short notice could cause many additional casualties.

The NRC's Beecher declined to discuss any of these issues, saying it could provide valuable information to terrorists.

Other NRC staff in more candid moments have conceded, according to public testimony, that an airplane crash would be the worst imaginable event. Hitting the reactor isn't the only potential nightmare. Still-radioactive spent fuel rods lay in cooling pools on the plant sites outside of the containment buildings with no protection from an airplane crash.

"The resulting fire could carry radioactive particles offsite and the consequences could be significant," according to one NRC document.

Even the nuclear power industry's association moderated its assurances in light of this week's attack.

"I'm not going to tell you that we can guarantee that the sites are impervious to every single scenario that can be envisioned," said Steven Kerekes, spokesman for the association, the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The NRC has no tests for airplane crashes. Tests for terrorist attacks have always simulated attempts by a few people to breach a plant on foot.

The commission's only license requirement regarding an airplane crash into a plant is that the chances of a fatal leak of radioactive particles from such an event be extremely low. The odds have always been found to be acceptably low only because the possibility of such a crash was considered totally remote, not because containment walls are built to withstand the impact of a jetliner.

Security Show To Be Weak

But on Tuesday, the country learned that the chances of such an event aren't as low as thought. The NRC and the nuclear power industry, like most everyone, had always considered airplane crashes to be accidents. Intentional airplane crashes now must be factored in, and the attractiveness of nuclear power plants as targets for terrorists can't be denied.

So, what should be done? An air attack is very hard to defend against unless the plants have antiaircraft artillery, which not even the Pentagon had at the ready Tuesday. Shutting down a plant in the face of an attack accomplishes nothing, because the uranium fuel takes weeks to reach a stable state.

NCI plans to ask for the dispatch of the National Guard to all nuclear power plants, similar to the steps taken by France this week. Further, the NCI wants a reassessment of what security measures need to be taken in light of this week's events.

But the NCI and other organizations don't trust the NRC to lead a genuine appraisal. Federal regulators have proven themselves far too cozy with the nuclear power industry, according to critics.

"The bottom line at the NRC today is the protection of the industry from public concerns," Leventhal said. "Public safety is secondary."

For example, half of the country's 103 nuclear power reactors have failed to repel ground invasions by mock terrorists in tests by the NRC, yet the NRC agreed to a pilot program starting this fall in which the plant operators get to conduct their own security tests. On Tuesday, the NRC asked nuclear power plant operators to go to highest alert, but only on a voluntary basis.

When the NRC "urged increased security" Tuesday afternoon, it said there were no credible general or specific threats to any of the plants, as if there had been a known threat to the World Trade Center or Pentagon Tuesday morning.

Somebody has got to start looking at this frightening possibility a little more seriously.

-By Mark Golden, Dow Jones Newswires; 201-938-4604; mark.golden@dowjones.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires 14-09-01 1744GMT(AP-DJ-09-14-01 1744GMT)