Trend: Growing debate over safety of nuclear power plants

Published 20 April 2006

Worries about the rising price of oil and the degradation of the environment by fossil fuels have led to renewed interest in nuclear power plants; worries about terrorism, however, cut in the other

The price of oil rises. Growing instability in the Gulf — the result of Iraq’s descent into chaos and growing tensions over Iran’s nuclear weapon program — will likely push the price of oil even higher. This is why a coalition of strange bedfellows — representatives of the energy industry and environmentalists worried about continuing use of fossil fuel — has begun to push for increasing reliance on nuclear energy. Among the first indications of the new drive is an application (the first in thirty years) to build a new nuclear plant, and an effort to reopen old ones.

This is why the case of Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey may well set a precedent. A determined group of citizens is fighting the renewal of the license which would allow the nation’s oldest nuclear power plant to continue operations. Their concern: The structural design of the 1960s-era Oyster Creek nuclear generating station is a security risk because, among other things, it stores highly radioactive spent fuel rods above ground, making these rods vulnerable in the event of a terrorist attack from the air. There are almost 3,000 pounds of highly radioactive rods stored seventy feet in the air in a cooling pool of water protected by what critics call “a thin metal roof” and what the plant operator calls “a heavily reinforced steel structure.”

What is more, Oyster Creek is located in the densely populated Jersey Shore, a fast-growing area in the most densely populated state. Oyster Creek is also within ten minutes of seven airports, both local and major.

If the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is persuaded, then it would be the first denial of a nuclear generating station’s request for a license renewal after its original forty-year license expires. As important: Until now the NRC has not taken terrorism into account when it decides whether to renew a nuclear plant’s license. The NRC recently ruled that the “possibility of a terrorist attack … is speculative” and therefore “beyond the scope” of relicensing proceedings.

Terrorism experts strongly disagree. “From a policy perspective, it’s absolutely critical that the relicensing procedures take into account the vulnerability from man-made attacks,” says Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security in Baltimore. “It’s the height of folly … for the [NRC] to say that it’s not going to consider seriously the vulnerability of the oldest plants when everybody knows these facilities are high-level targets.”

A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council, done at the request of Congress, found that “successful terrorist attacks on spent fuel pools [at some nuclear power plants,] though difficult, are possible” and that “a propagating fire in a pool could release large amounts of radioactive materials.”

The conflict offers a hint to the challenge of addressing electricity needs as well as environmental concerns about greenhouse gases, which nuclear power plants do not emit. It also shows the challenges faced in this post-9/11 world by the NRC, which has recently come under fire from members of Congress for not taking the threat of terrorism seriously enough.