Warns Attack on Fuel Could Pose Serious Hazards
The New York Times, Washington, January 30,
By Matthew L. Wald
A successful terrorist attack on a spent fuel storage
pool at a large nuclear reactor could have consequences "significantly
worse than Chernobyl," according to a new scientific study. But
it said the risk could be cut sharply by moving some of the spent fuel
to dry casks near the reactors and making changes in how the rest is
The report, which will be published this spring
in a scientific journal of Princeton University, is one of the few broad
analyses of the risk posed by spent fuel that is being made public.
Because there is no long-term storage site for nuclear fuel, the risk
it poses would persist for years even if the reactors where it is now
stored are shut down, as some critics are seeking for the Indian Point
plants in New York.
Many reactor operators have already moved some fuel
to dry casks because their pools have filled up as the federal program
to bury the fuel has slipped further into the future. Burial can be
done only with fuel that is more than five years old, because newer
fuel gives off so much heat that it must be kept in water. The older
fuel can be kept dry because air will safely dissipate its heat. It
would cost $3.5 billion to $7 billion to move old fuel to dry casks,
the authors predicted.
But if the federal government opens a burial site
at Yucca Mountain near Las Vegas, as it says it will in about a decade,
some of that money will have to be spent anyway to put fuel in casks
for shipment to a permanent burial site.
The paper will appear in the spring issue of Science and Global Security,
a journal at Princeton. Some of its eight authors began briefing federal
officials in Washington today. Their recommendations include reinforcing
the casks to make them less vulnerable and designing them so that if
a large airplane were crashed into them, the plane's fuel could not
pool around them and overheat them as it burned.
The nuclear industry has generally argued that a successful attack is
highly unlikely. At the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade
association, Stephen D. Floyd, a senior director, said that an aircraft
could not do the job, and that adversaries could not assemble a larger
attack without attracting attention.
Security improvements, Mr. Floyd said, should be
limited to those that address realistic threats. "Otherwise you're
going to chase your tail and spend this country out of existence on
what-if scenarios," he said.
Today, two of the authors briefed one of the five
members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Edward McGaffigan Jr.,
who said the study overstated the possible effects. At Indian Point,
Mr. McGaffigan said, even if terrorists could puncture a spent fuel
pool, it would be very difficult to drain the water because the fuel
is almost entirely below ground.
"If you're at all rational as an Al Qaeda planner,
you don't choose this target where you have a probability of failure,"
he said. "You have other targets where you have a higher probability
But the authors, reviewing European tests and other
studies, suggest that a plane moving fast enough could cause the building
over a spent fuel pool to collapse, or could create an explosion under
The authors say that the industry has raised the
risk by reconfiguring its pools over the years to squeeze in more and
more fuel and that in their current configuration the pools are vulnerable
to heating up and catching fire if they are breached.
Nuclear experts, including at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, acknowledge
that the vulnerability of the pools has increased because they are so
full. With older fuel removed, the authors say, remaining fuel could
be spread out, and reactor operators could install air-moving equipment
that could help keep it cool even if the pool were drained.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled in December that it was impossible
to determine the likelihood of a terrorist attack and thus has resisted
using its standard method for deciding whether to make improvements,
which is to multiply the probability of an event with its consequences,
and using the product to rank the hazard and determine how much should
be spent to reduce it. "This situation calls for more explicit
guidance from Congress," the paper said.
Nuclear plants create radioactive material as they operate, splitting
atoms of uranium, which are only slightly radioactive, into a variety
of products that are highly unstable and give off gamma rays or subatomic
particles to achieve stability. Nearly all the radioactive material
stays inside the fuel, which continues to generate heat over the years
as it gives off radiation.
When the nuclear plants were designed, engineers
believed that the fuel would be removed quickly from the pools, and
were more concerned about releases from inside the containment, where
water and steam at high temperatures and pressures seemed more prone
to escape. Spent fuel pools are designed to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes,
tornadoes and other natural hazards, but were not explicitly designed
with terrorism in mind.
The authors plan to brief some members of Congress on Thursday. The
authors include Frank N. von Hippel, a Princeton physicist; Gordon R.
Thompson, director of the nonprofit Institute for Resource and Security
Studies, in Cambridge, Mass.; Alison Macfarlane, of the Securities Studies
Program and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Edwin Lyman,
president of the Nuclear Control Institute; and Robert Alvarez, a former
adviser to the energy secretary.