An Atomic 9/11?

Thursday, February 1, 2007

SINCE Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have maintained an understandable preoccupation with securing sensitive sites against airborne attack. Hence the appeal of the petition an advocacy group filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that, among other things, asks the federal nuclear authority to require plant operators to build protective "beamhenges" -- basically tall (and expensive) steel barriers -- around their power stations. This week the NRC's commissioners rejected the request, saying that there are far more cost-effective measures to secure such targets that plant owners and federal authorities have already applied.

It's a controversial decision. After all, without physical barriers to thwart airborne attacks, couldn't a hijacked plane smashing into a nuclear plant produce a widespread catastrophe?

That's not likely, says commission member Jeffrey S. Merrifield. After a $20 million study on the possible effects of an attempted airborne attack on a nuclear power plant, the NRC concluded that the chances of neighboring communities being exposed to radiological materials are extremely low -- the actual number is classified -- because of the strength of the containment domes that seal nuclear fuel from the outside world and because the chances of an errant plane even having the opportunity to approach a nuclear power plant are small.

Such assurances do not convince long-time critics of the NRC such as Daniel Hirsch, who says that a dangerous meltdown is still possible if terrorists on the ground manage to disrupt reactor cooling systems before a plane crash. It's fair to worry about a worst-case scenario, even if the NRC insists that Mr. Hirsch wildly overestimates the chances of any meltdown occurring. And it is difficult to fully trust the NRC's calculations as long as the study it touts remains classified.

But instead of forcing operators to pay for steel beamhenges, the federal government and others concerned about plant safety should focus on measures likely to be more beneficial. These include ensuring that nuclear power stations are well defended from land attack and that storage units for spent nuclear fuel are robust. Federal authorities must also finally establish a long-term storage facility for the spent fuel that continues to accumulate on nuclear plant sites, which is probably a more dangerous target than nuclear reactors themselves.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company