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BETTY ANN BOWSER: Just one hour after the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, the federal agency responsible for safety at nuclear power plants puts its emergency operations center on its highest state of alert. Since then, emergency crews, seen here in a drill, have been working 24 hours a day, and are in constant touch with the FBI and the military. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, also put the nation’s 103 nuclear reactors on their highest state of alert.
RAY GOLDEN, San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant: We have essentially locked down the facility. The gates are manned with armed security officers. The only people getting in and out are employees with positive photo identification.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Now, the Coast Guard is patrolling waters around nuclear power plants. The National Guard is on duty in at least eight states. State police are also pitching in. And earlier this week, 126 general aviation airports close to nuclear power plants were effectively shut down when the FAA ordered small aircraft not to fly near or over nuclear power plants. But even with all this heightened security, long-time critics of the NRC are concerned. Congressman Ed Markey thinks a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant has been a very real possibility for more than ten years.
REP. ED MARKEY, (D-Mass.): If the terrorists were successful in hijacking another plane, then flying one into a nuclear power plant would be a relatively easy task for them to achieve. Depending upon which direction the wind was blowing, everyone that was in the path of the radioactive plume would be exposed to a danger that could run anywhere from death to serious long-term illness for every single individual.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Markey says it would be even more devastating than the world’s worst nuclear energy accident in 1986 at Chernobyl. Fifteen years later, hundreds of miles of land around what was once the nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union are still uninhabitable. Markey wants the NRC to make the owners of the nuclear plants that supply 20 per cent of the nation’s electricity to completely revamp security procedures and hire more guards. NRC Chairman Dr. Richard Meserve says the agency has done everything reasonable it can to protect American nuclear plants. But he’s not sure that any of them could withstand a Sept. 11 type of attack involving a big airplane with a full load of fuel.
RICHARD MESERVE, Chairman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission: This was a wake-up call, Sept. 11, for all of us about the kind of world we live in and the threats that exist. But let me say I think the real crucial question is, if they were able to do it, what would the consequences be? That is something that has not been evaluated previously. It is an evaluation that we are undertaking. I can say that nuclear power plants are built with very heavy and robust structures. They have thick walls of reinforced concrete. They have redundant safety equipment. So I think that, although we have not done the evaluations, there are features of nuclear power plants that are very favorable in terms of their capacity to be able to respond to such an event without there being undue public hazard.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is it not correct, sir, that the NRC has said since Sept. 11 that our plants were not designed to withstand the impact of an attack like that?
RICHARD MESERVE: That’s correct.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And you stand by that statement?
RICHARD MESERVE: Of course, of course. They were not… They were not designed. This was viewed as a very improbable event to occur, and so it wasn’t one of the design criteria. In that, of course, we’re similar to most other infrastructure in the United States: The White House, the Pentagon, the Capitol, chemical plants, refineries also were not designed to withstand an aircraft attack of the type that we saw on Sept. 11.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Ralph Beedle, senior vice president of the nuclear industry’s trade association, does think the plants could survive a terrorist attack from the sky.
RALP BEEDLE, Nuclear Energy Institute: The public can be pretty confident that these plants are designed to contain the radioactive material. I am confident that containment would withstand the crash of a large commercial aircraft and protect the core to the point that you would not have a radioactive release.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But it’s not just the nuclear reactor that might be compromised in the event of a terrorist attack. Another major area of concern: These pools containing used-up fuel rods. Once the rods are no longer able to generate electricity, they remain radioactive for 10,000 years. So at all of the nuclear power plants, they have been stored in pools of water that keep them from heating up and spreading radiation contamination. David Lochbaum is a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a watchdog agency.
DAVID LOCHBAUM: If you were able to drain the water out of the pool that Houses the reactor fuel, the fuel would overheat and either melt down or catch on fire, releasing its radioactivity to the atmosphere and the winds would carry it to whoever is downwind.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And the rods are also stored at 13 power plants that have been decommissioned or closed down, where critics say security by the NRC is lax.
DAVID LOCHBAUM: I think the biggest vulnerability still is not the operating plants but the plants that have been permanently shut down. At the plants that have been permanently shut down, security is basically been turned down to bare bones minimum. If a terrorist were to get access to this material and cause it to be dispersed into the atmosphere with an explosive of some sort, the government had studies done last year that shows it would be the… in terms of damage to the public, it would be the equivalent of a ten kiloton bomb going off, atomic bomb.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Chairman Meserve says security at the nation’s decommissioned plants has been increased dramatically.
RICHARD MESERVE, Chairman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission: We certainly do worry about spent fuel pools, just as we worry about reactors and other kinds of facilities. And the concern you have for a spent fuel pool is if somehow all of that water were to disappear, and then the fuel could heat up and then you might have an event that you’d certainly be worried about. But they then present a rather difficult target for an airplane, that you’d have to imagine that somehow the airplane is going to come into a… Collide into a pool in a fashion that can rupture the wall of four or five feet of reinforced concrete– a difficult attack.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What can you tell us about increased security at those facilities?
RICHARD MESERVE: Well, for understandable reasons, I can’t go into the details, but there are enhanced guard capabilities and controls on vehicles and things of that nature.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But equally disturbing, say NRC critics, is the industry’s record with force-on-force drills. Those are the NRC’s unannounced simulated terrorist attacks like this one recorded at a nuclear power plant a few years ago. Again, Congressman Ed Markey:
REP. ED MARKEY: Over 40 per cent of all the tests, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission applies to the nuclear industry are flunked by the nuclear industry in terms of security against terrorist attack. The American people want… should want, and I think do want, the tests to be toughened, for the standards to be increased so that there’s a reduction in the likelihood that any terrorist attack, much less 40 per cent of them, could be successful.
RICHARD MESERVE, Chairman, Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Where we found problems we required… Immediately required that corrections be in place. I mean, I take some satisfaction from the fact that we found failures. We were giving hard tests and we were hard graders and we were requiring corrections. We were doing this before Sept. 11. I think everyone in government is now recognizing that terrorists may have greater capabilities than we had expected before Sept. 11, and we’ll have to reexamine this issue, and the Commission is certainly going to do that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The NRC is doing a multimillion-dollar study of the impact of an airplane attack, and they are revising something called the design basis threat, which specifies what kind of a terrorist attack every nuclear plant operator is required to defend itself against. Meanwhile, Congressman Markey today asked the administration to put the National Guard on duty at all active and decommissioned plants and arm them with antiaircraft weapons.