As I Was Saying / Ben FrankelSmoking guns and mushroom clouds

Published 16 November 2005

What was it that administration officials said about how, in the age of weapons of mass destruction, we can no longer wait for 100 percent proof that an adversary has WMDs because the “smoking gun may come in the form of a mushroom cloud”? Well, how about home-grown mushroom clouds? An in-depth — and disturbing — investigation published by Time magazine a few months ago found that there are only 8,000 full-time guards employed in all the nuclear power plants in America. This is an average of only eighty guards per power plant, of whom not more than sixty, and probably even fewer, would be on duty on any given shift. What is more, the guard towers around these nuclear plants are called “iron coffins” by the guards who man them: The metal sheeting armoring the towers are so thin that they could not withstand even a .50-caliber rifle bullet. Time reported that many security experts believe U.S. nuclear power stations currently lack the number of guards, fire-power, and defensive systems to repel determined attempts by as few as nineteen or twenty terrorists to storm them and wreck their operating systems in order

to provoke catastrophic core meltdowns.

So here we are, four years after 9/11. Trouble is, the 103 civilian nuclear reactors in the United States are not only largely defenseless against a determined attack by small groups of terrorists — they are also defenseless against direct air attack. Critics charge that no practical measures whatsoever have been taken since 9/11 to protect any of the 103 civilian reactors against having aircraft crash into them.

No steps have been taken to ensure protection (of the reactors) against air

attack. No steps have been taken to protect (the installations) against the number of attackers who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,” says Dan Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap nuclear watch dog group told the NIPRI conference. “It is just outrageous,” said Hirsch, former director of the Program on Nuclear Safety at the University of Santa Cruz. “They are leaving the reactors vulnerable. These are in-place nuclear weapons. If a plane were to attack a reactor there is nothing to protect them. There is no protection. The plants are just completely vulnerable to air attack.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not require any of the utilities operating existing nuclear plants to install anti-aircraft missiles, or any other defenses against terrorists who might try to crash rented or hijacked aircraft into the reactors. Note that such an attack does not have to destroy or significantly damage the reactor directly. If the primary and back-up water cooling pipes and equipment were damaged enough to interfere long enough with the coolant flow, a meltdown on a Chernobyl scale

would inevitably happen. This is because even after a reactor is shut down, it has to be water-cooled for months until the radioactive fuel inside it has sufficiently cooled down. In other words, all a terrorist has to do is disrupt the coolant to cause a meltdown. The U.S. Air Force or Air Force Reserve do not give continual air cover to the 103 civilian reactors.

The continuing vulnerability is especially inexplicable because there is a straightforward solution to an air-attack scenario: Encasing the 103 civilian reactors in steel skeleton structures which would deflect any aircraft from crashing directly into them. The steel skeletons of the two World Trade Center towers withstood the kinetic energy of being hit by fully-loaded Boeing 767s, and only melted after the planes’ fuel burnt for more than an

hour. The steel encasing around the reactors’ containment vessels could be designed in such away that a crashing plane would not end up resting on the structure, as was the case in the Twin Towers, but deflected to the side of the building.

-read more in Martin Sieff’s UPI report; see list of the reactors at this NRC Web site