JUICE: Nukes Post Bin Laden

20 May 2011

It only takes four steps to sabotage a nuclear power plant, according to Dave Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety engineer. “Buy a comfortable chair. Buy a big-screen TV. Buy plenty of snacks and beverages. Sit back and watch sports while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry undermine safety until they cause an accident.”

Last week, the commission issued a request for nuclear power plant owners, like Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric, to give regulators “information on how the plants are complying with requirements to deal with the potential loss of large areas of the plant after extreme events.”

“Extreme events” is NRC-speak for terrorist attacks.

Soon after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the NRC shut down its website for months. Take that, Mr. and Ms. would-be terrorist. In addition to blacking out its website, the NRC sent a “safety culture” survey out to nuclear power plant employees.

(Red alert.) Fear the power of a survey.

A few months after 9/11, federal regulators said they would reconsider the basic engineering design of power plants, called “design basis.” The aim was to see if there could be anything terribly wrong with a nuclear power plant sitting out in the open for any plane to fly over and drop a bomb, or any boat to nestle up to and launch a rocket-propelled grenade. Apparently there’s nothing terribly troubling about a nuclear power plant posing as a terrorist target because, since 9/11, there doesn’t seem to have been new requirements to physically harden the plants against assaults. They haven’t even required them to be covered in camouflage nets. If anything has been done, we wouldn’t know about it anyway because it’s all very hush hush just in case a terrorist could get hold of the information.

A Mothers for Peace lawsuit in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals got regulators to at least not rule out a terrorist attack on Diablo Canyon in the commission’s decision making. Still, the lawyers couldn’t get the “secret” information.

What I have been able to find out through public utility commission documents is that nuclear plant owners have beefed up their security forces. Because utilities have to report their increased expenses to the state, I could find that there are more hours related to guard duty at California’s nuclear plants.

Federal regulators have a program to exercise nuclear power plant security guards without an onsite gym. The Department of Energy has what it calls “force-on-force” exercises. They involve federal agents dressing up as terrorists toting weapons. They are supposed to surprise the guards at the nuclear plants. Sometimes the tests find hapless security guards failing to defend the power plants. Sometimes, the power plant owners are tipped off to a pending “surprise.”

The nuclear industry--largely through the Nuclear Energy Institute--acts like a Nuclear Regulatory Commission sibling. Industry, for instance, challenged the force-on-force exercises. Industry didn’t like certain weapons that the mock terrorists were supposed to be carrying. The NRC changed the exercise to make it more palatable for the companies it was supposed to be regulating.

The hand-to-hand combat between the industry and its regulators over terrorist force-on-force exercises led the Government Accountability Office to note that it “created the appearance that changes were made [to the terrorism response] based on what the industry considered reasonable and feasible to defend against rather than on an assessment of the terrorist threat itself.”

While anti-terrorist information remains scant, it is known that nuclear plants are building on-site, above-ground storage facilities for plutonium and other high-level waste. Because they are exposed, those sites are more easily penetrated by missiles.

At 32 nuclear plants, the high level waste is stored on the roofs of the facilities, according to the National Academy of Sciences. If airplanes were to crash into the facilities and accidentally ignite the radioactive waste, lethal radioactivity would spread.

Also known is that some nuclear plants’ steam generators have huge pipes on the outside of the facilities. One good aim at those and whamo! Radioactive steam escapes and there’s a potential for loss of coolant to the reactor leading to possible meltdown. (Is that the FBI knocking at my door yet?)

In addition, any time nuclear material is transported--like taking radioactive water to a waste storage site--the vehicles are moving targets on public thoroughfares. For the most part, however, there is no need for a terrorist attack to release radioactivity from transported waste--the industry itself has done so. In just one instance, a tanker truck carrying radioactive wastewater from the San Onofre plant in Southern California was found to have leaked while parked at a truck stop three big states away in Utah. San Onofre owner Edison stated that it did not believe the truck had leaked along the thousands of miles of highway before the leak was discovered at the truck stop.

Even though all this is known in that shhhh sort of way, the federal government refuses to open its books to its sister scientist watchdog group, the National Academy of Sciences. For instance, the Academy reported that it was unable to analyze the threat of a terrorist attack during transportation of radioactive waste because its researchers were denied access to federal data. Even before 9/11 the public, and the National Academy of Scientists in particular, were denied information on nuclear power. As far back as 1990 the NRC refused the Academy’s request for statistical probability of a core meltdown.

Critics say that terrorists consider nuclear power plants to be top targets because they could cause mass casualties, particularly if they’re close to a large population center like New York City. They note the 9/11 commission report found that Mohammed Atta, who piloted one of the planes into the World Trade Center, had “considered targeting a nuclear facility,” as did Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

The public won’t know what, and how much, nuclear owners like PG&E, Edison, and SDG&E are doing to harden California’s reactors against attacks. That’s not going to happen.

The NRC is meeting with PG&E June 7 to discuss security issues in advance of regulators’ expected 20-year license extension for Diablo Canyon. That’s in secret, but other issues the same day are open to the public.

We can’t rely on the NRC to heighten requirements so much that a terrorist attack is out of the question--because it’s never out of the question. The best thing we, as Americans, can do, is not annoy anyone who might marshal the wherewithal to attack a nuclear plant.

We also can sit back in a comfortable chair with our fingers crossed.

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