July 2002

Symposium assesses terrorist threat to nuclear plants

Associated Press, July 1, 2002
By Jennifer Peter

[Posted 03/07/2002]

BOSTON (AP) The greatest vulnerability to terrorist attack at Plymouth's nuclear power plant is not its hot nuclear core, but its above-ground cooling pools that store spent fuel rods, according to experts who spoke Monday at the Statehouse.

''While reactor cores are often encased in reasonably thick protective shells, the storage of spent nuclear fuel is laughable,'' said Dr. David Rush, a physician and professor emeritus at Tufts University.

The experts gathered at an impromptu symposium, convened by Rep. Matthew Patrick, R-Barnstable, to discuss the dangers of terrorist attacks on nuclear plants as the Independence Day holiday approaches.

U.S. intelligence officials have received unverified information that terrorists may attack a nuclear plant on July 4.

''It's no secret that nuclear plants are on a short list of terrorist targets,'' said Robert Alvarez, director of the Nuclear Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior adviser to the energy secretary from 1993 to 1999. ''After Sept. 11, it dawned on me that we were entirely too complacent about this threat.''

The physicists and doctors portrayed the nuclear industry as woefully unprepared to defend against terrorism, because regulators and owners been more concerned with profits than public safety.

The same conflict has deterred the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from taking any kind of meaningful action since the fall attacks, the experts said.

''As we approach 10 months after Sept. 11, the NRC is still in limbo in terms of strengthening security at nuclear power plants,'' said Dr. Ed Lyman, a theoretical physicist and director of the Nuclear Control Institute. ''Because security is expensive.''

The Pilgrim Nuclear Station stores 2,278 rods in cooling pools 100 feet over the ground, compared to 580 rods in the nuclear core, where energy is generated.

If there were to be any type of disaster at the plant, Patrick said, Cape residents would not be able to evacuate to the mainland.

''It would be physically impossible,'' Patrick said. ''On Cape Cod, we are very concerned about the risks from nuclear power plants.''

Pilgrim spokeswoman Carol Wightman said that the plant has been at a heightened state of security since Sept. 11 and that ''the fuel stored inside the nuclear plant would be protected from any kind of threat from terrorism.''

''Pilgrim has an excellent security force. They have been trained in resisting terrorist forces,'' Wightman said. She noted that there has been no specific threat against any particular plant.

Officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not immediately return calls for comment.

Possible safeguards presented by the panel included the installation of anti-aircraft missiles near the plant, a hardening of the plant's shell, and transferring the spent fuel from the cooling pools to dry cask storage, a process that could take two years.

If an attack were to occur, Rush warned, the health care systems would be quickly overwhelmed.

''There is no way there can be adequate preparation for any extensive exposure,'' he said.

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