Want some terrifying bedtime reading?
bother with Stephen King or Dean Koontz. Just curl up with a recent
edition of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and let Daniel Hirsch
scare you to death.
Hirsch, who heads an anti-nuclear group in Los
Angeles, writes that many of the nation's nuclear reactors, including the
two at the San Onofre plant in south Orange County, remain vulnerable to a
terrorist attack. Some congressmen agree. And why am I not particularly
soothed when the federal agency that regulates the nuclear industry says
all is well? Could it be because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said
right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that U.S. nuclear plants were
built to withstand airplane impact, only to say a few days later they were
referring only to small airplanes, not necessarily commercial
It didn't improve Hirsch's mood that, when I spoke to him a
couple of days ago, a federal review of the San Onofre plant had found two
security breaches--both occurring after the Sept. 11 attacks.
government said the breaches--two unescorted people trying to enter a
control room and an inadequate inspection of a San Onofre firetruck near a
protected area--were relatively minor.
Hirsch begs to
"I was troubled, because they occurred within weeks of
Sept. 11, at a time when the reactors were supposed to be at their highest
state of alert," he says. "The entire safety of the reactors is based on
The maddening thing is that average citizens
don't know whether what Hirsch writes and thinks is closer to fact or
Do we believe him or the government that regulates the
Hirsch, whose group is called the Committee to Bridge the
Gap, alternately laughs ruefully and laments as he describes the NRC's
long-standing oversight of nuclear plants. "The problem is, the
regulations for protecting nuclear power plants are a quarter-century
old," he says. "They were established in the mid-1970s. They required only
a security system capable of repelling an attack by three
So when federal officials or plant operators say the
facilities were designed with terrorists in mind, Hirsch isn't
The two post-Sept. 11 breaches only deepened his concern.
"The one moment on Earth when you'd think they wouldn't have a problem ...
[and] they were having these kind of lax controls ... makes me extremely
nervous about the longer term."
Massachusetts Rep. Edward Markey, a
longtime critic of the nuclear industry, alleged in a report two weeks ago
that the nation's 100 or so commercial nuclear reactors remain vulnerable
to terrorism, with little done to reduce the threat. Federal officials
disagreed and said they'd offer a detailed rebuttal at a later
Hirsch wrote in the scientists' journal that security
regulations in the nation's nuclear plants are "dismally inadequate and
outmoded." And because of the damage that would result from the release of
radioactivity from even one of San Onofre's reactors, the stakes are
immense, Hirsch says.
"I've agonized over this issue for 15 years,"
he says. "To go public, [I thought] that might give ideas to the
terrorists. For 15 years, through back channels, we've tried to get the
NRC to fix this [security] problem."
Now, Hirsch says, it's common
knowledge that terrorists know a lot about U.S. nuclear power plants and
see them as potential targets.
In his article, Hirsch wrote, "The
press has focused on the vulnerability of reactor containment buildings to
airborne attack.... Excessive emphasis on the risk of air attack obscures
the far larger and more frightening possibility of ground assault or the
threat from insiders [on "soft targets" inside plants that protect against
That's pretty scary, I tell
Turns out, he says, I scared him.
"I was nervous when
you called me," he says. "I'm terrified every day I'm going to get a call
from a reporter saying there has been a true attack on San
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays
and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by
writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave.,
Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to