Excludes Terrorism as Licensing Consideration
The New York Times, January 6, 2003
By Matthew L. Wald
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ruled that
the threat of terrorism cannot be considered when licensing reactors
or other nuclear installations because the risk is too speculative.
The commission also said discussing the issue in
licensing hearings would give too much information to terrorists and
might "unduly alarm the public."
The ruling, made late last month, covers a factory
that Duke Energy and other companies are seeking to build in South Carolina
to turn weapons plutonium into reactor fuel; two existing Duke reactor
plants that would use the plutonium fuel; a temporary waste-storage
project in Utah; and a project to expand fuel storage at the Millstone
reactors in Waterford, Conn.
The commission said that it defined risk as a product
of the probability of an event multiplied by its consequences, but that
in the Utah case, which involves building concrete and steel casks to
store highly radioactive nuclear fuel, "we have no way to calculate
the probability portion of the equation, except in such general terms
as to be nearly meaningless."
The ruling has outraged some nuclear-safety experts.
Victor Gilinsky, one of the five members of the regulatory commission
in the 1970's and 80's, complained that at a time when the commission
forbids considering terrorism at the Duke plutonium plant, "Ashcroft
is changing the Bill of Rights because it is imminent."
Dr. Edwin Lyman, president of the Nuclear Control
Institute, an antiproliferation group in Washington, said the decision
was contradictory. The commission reasoned that it need not consider
terrorism, because terrorism is "entirely independent of the facility,"
Dr. Lyman pointed out.
But that, he added, "ignores the fact that
the terrorist threat to a facility is surely dependent on where that
facilities is sited, i.e. in a remote or densely populated area."
"One of the main threats we face today in the
U.S. is that many potentially hazardous facilities are located near
heavily populated areas," Dr. Lyman wrote in an e-mail message.
"This situation is tolerated because severe accidents are considered
highly improbable. But surely in the future, it makes sense to consider
the possibility of terrorist acts that could intentionally cause large
releases when making decisions about the location and design features
of hazardous facilities."
The commission ruling took note of the Sept. 11
attacks. It said the proper approach would be to improve security at
nuclear sites, on airplanes and around the country generally, rather
than to try to determine the environmental effects of "a third-party
attack" on a site.
In the past, design features at nuclear plants proposed
to ensure environmental safety had been available for public scrutiny.
But the commission said security preparations and characteristics of
plants that would bear on the success of a terrorist attack would remain
The commission ruled that terrorism could not be
considered under the National Environmental Policy Act, the law that
requires the government to issue an Environmental Impact Statement when
it takes a major action.
Diane Curran, a lawyer in Washington who has represented
nuclear opponents in several cases where considering terrorism was forbidden,
said that opponents could try to raise the same arguments under the
Atomic Energy Act, but that under that law, the regulatory commission
was free to ignore them.
Only in the environmental impact statement process
is the government required to respond, Ms. Curran said, and thus the
decision was a major setback for opponents.
Peter A. Bradford, a member of the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission from 1977 to 1982, compared the commission's attitude to
its view on hydrogen explosions. Before the accident in 1979 at Three
Mile Island in Middletown, Pa., Mr. Bradford said, such explosions were
considered impossible. After the one at Three Mile Island, he said,
the commission still considered them impossible, "because now that
we had had one, we would be too vigilant for another to occur."
"The bottom line is that events that have occurred
but that can't be dealt with must still be considered impossible, first
because they haven't yet occurred, then because they have," he
The commission has historically declined to speculate
about terrorist threats against reactors. In the late 80's and early
90's, it fought off arguments that it needed stronger defenses against
truck bombs, despite truck bomb attacks around the world. The commission
argued that in the United States no bomb could be assembled without
attracting the notice of the police. But in early 1993, terrorists exploded
a truck bomb in an underground garage at the World Trade Center and
a man with a history of mental problems drove his station wagon through
an open gate at Three Mile Island and drove into the turbine building.
The man, who was not armed, hid inside the plant for hours.
Shortly after that, the commission revised its rules
to cover bombs in small vehicles. But it has not instituted any sweeping
rules related to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"They are closing the barn door from yesterday,"
said David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned
The commission, Mr. Lochbaum said, should be more
forward looking. But he added that nuclear engineers were "not
good on qualitative analysis" and that the commission's problem
was that it was confronting a problem with a lack of data points on
major terrorist attacks.