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NRC assessing US nuclear plants' airstrike risk

Date: 06-Jun-02
Country: USA
Author: Chris Baltimore

The agency may also order nuclear power plants to conduct more frequent drills against potential sabotage or terrorist attacks, NRC Chairman Richard Meserve told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

As a part of the agency's review of security measures since the deadly Sept. 11 hijack attacks, Meserve said the agency is conducting a "major engineering evaluation" of nuclear plant vulnerability to airplane strikes.

Some U.S. lawmakers and activist groups are concerned that a Sept. 11-type attack against a nuclear power plant would release deadly radioactive materials that could spread for miles.

"Civilian nuclear power plants are at the top of the list of targets," Democratic Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts testified, pointing to plant diagrams found in caves abandoned in Afghanistan by al Qaeda, the group Washington blames for the hijack attacks.

Meserve acknowledged that "no existing nuclear facilities were specifically designed to withstand a deliberate, high-velocity, direct impact of a large commercial airliner."

At the same time, the reinforced concrete containment structure around U.S. nuclear plant reactors are strong enough to turn away "tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods and earthquakes," he said.

As a part of its study, Meserve said the NRC may ask Sandia National Laboratories to create computer models detailing the destruction that could happen if a commercial airliner made a direct hit on a nuclear plant.

"We're evaluating (airplane strikes) ... for various types of plants and we may end up doing it for each plant," Meserve told reporters after the hearing.

In 1988, Sandia conducted a related test and slammed an F-4 Phantom fighter jet into a concrete block at 481 miles per hour (775 kph) to measure the force of the impact of the jet. The aircraft's fuel tanks were filled with water instead of flammable fuel.

The test showed the F-4 broke up and only penetrated several inches.

But the 1988 test was not designed to measure the strength of nuclear plant containment structures. "We don't make any claims as to having tested a containment structure," a Sandia spokesman said.

The Senate committee is considering Democratic-proposed legislation to federalize the privately employed security guards at plants.

The NRC and U.S. utilities oppose making nuclear plant security guards federal employees. They also object to proposals to station military anti-aircraft defenses around nuclear plants to shoot down attackers.

Such measures could "lead to significant collateral damage to plant workers and members of the public," Meserve warned, calling airport security measures the best way to guard against attack.

Republican committee members criticized the chairman, independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont, for holding an open hearing on nuclear plant security. They demanded that any future hearings on such a security-sensitive topic be held behind closed doors.

"It's safe to say that the people that want to hurt us are watching," said Robert Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, commenting on the hearing's live television coverage.

Jeffords countered that the public "has a right to know what's going on," and pointed out that he scheduled a closed-door nuclear security briefing last year.

Nuclear power plants provide about 20 percent of the nation's electricity.

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