Study: Nuclear Plants Vulnerable To Attacks
Experts Found Compromised Fuel Storage Pools Are Likely Sources Of
Fire And Radiation.
Wisconsin State Journal :: FRONT :: A4
Thursday, April 7, 2005
H. Josef Hebert Associated Press
Fuel storage pools at nuclear power plants in 31 states may be
vulnerable to terrorist attacks that could unleash raging fires and
deadly radiation, scientists advised the government Wednesday.
The group of nuclear experts said neither the government nor the
nuclear industry "adequately understands the vulnerabilities and
consequences of such an event." They recommended undertaking a plant-
by-plant examination of fuel storage security as soon as possible.
In the meantime, plant operators promptly should reconfigure used
fuel rods in the storage pools to lower decay-heat intensity and
install spray devices to reduce the risk of a fire should a storage
facility be attacked, the scientists said.
Congress sought the study by a National Academy of Science panel
because of the heightened concerns that terrorists might seek to
target nuclear power plants. The release Wednesday of a declassified
version of the report followed months of debate with the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission over how much of the findings should remain
secret, and therefore, unavailable to potential terrorists.
At 68 plants, including some already shut down, in 31 states,
including Wisconsin, thousands of used reactor fuel rods are in deep
water pools. Dry, concrete casks hold a smaller number of these rods.
Much more highly radioactive fuel is stored in pools than is in the
more protected reactors -- 103 in total -- at these sites.
Some scientists and nuclear watchdog groups long have contended that
these pools pose a much greater danger to a catastrophic attack than
do the reactors themselves.
Some plants where pools are all or partially underground present less
of a problem. Others, including a series of boiling-water reactors
where pools are more exposed, represent greater concern, said Bob
Alvarez, a former Energy Department official who has argued for
increased protection of used reactor fuel at nuclear plants.
The experts' report "pretty well legitimizes what we've been saying,"
Alvarez said in an interview.
The scientific panel said reinforced concrete storage pools -- 25
feet to 45 feet deep, with water circulating to keep the fuel
assemblies from overheating -- could tempt terrorists.
The report said an aircraft or high explosive attack could cause
water to drain from the pools and expose the fuel rods, unleashing an
uncontrollable fire and large amounts of radiation.
Nuclear regulators said they would give the report's
recommendations "serious consideration." But the NRC has disputed
many findings and suggestions from the experts.
After the classified document was provided to members of Congress
last month, the NRC's chairman told lawmakers in a letter that some
of the panel's assessments about plants' vulnerabilities
were "unreasonable" and that certain conclusions "lacked sound
"Today, spent fuel is better protected than ever," Nils Diaz wrote.
The NRC said it believes the potential for large releases of
radiation from such a fire "to be extremely low." Still, the agency
has advised reactor operations to consider refiguring the pools' fuel
rods -- pairing new ones with older ones to reduce the heat.
Kevin Crowley, the scientific panel's staff director, said the
classified version of the report includes "some attack scenarios well
within the means of terrorists" that could result in a catastrophic
fire of spent fuel.
Nuclear safety advocates said the report recognizes, for the first
time, the vulnerability of spent fuel.
David Lochbaum, a nuclear industry watchdog for the Union of
Concerned Scientists, said the study makes clear that regulators have
not acted aggressively enough.
"Three years after 9/11, our hope would have been more of that
homework had been done," Lochbaum said.
The industry says its system of storing the fuel is safe and
protected. But in response to the report, the industry said it
was "assessing the potential to augment" safety systems for spent
Marvin Fertel, a senior executive at the Nuclear Energy Institute,
the industry's trade group, said a computer analysis the industry
commissioned in 2002 showed that fuel pool structures would
withstand, without a significant loss of water, the impact of an
But the study said the pools vary among plants and reactor designs,
and that some are more vulnerable than others.
The panel said dry cask storage provides better protection. It also
said significant numbers of used fuel rods always will have to be
stay in pools for as long as five years before they adequately cool.
At least one-quarter of the power plants now have some of their spent
fuel in dry casks.
The panel said the government should look into more widespread use of
dry cask storage as part of its detailed assessment of risks.
The academy is a private organization chartered by Congress to advise
the government of scientific matters.