Study details vulnerabilities of nuke power plants to jet crash

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Despite evidence dating to 1994 that terrorists wanted to strike nuclear power plants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission kept a study in its public reading room that identified in precise detail the vulnerabilities of U.S. reactors to a jetliner crash.

The 119-page report was still available for public inspection this month, long after the Sept. 11 hijackings prompted increased security across America.

The 1982 study by the Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory detailed the likely damage that a jetliner at certain speeds could inflict on the thick concrete containment walls protecting reactors.

Though it addressed only accidental crashes, it included a chart that identified the speeds at which a jetliner would begin to transfer its force into the primary containment wall and interior structure of a nuclear reactor.

And it estimated that if just 1 percent of a jetliner's fuel ignited after impact it would create an explosion equivalent to 1,000 pounds of dynamite inside a reactor building already damaged by the impact. The more fuel, the worse the explosion.

The ignition of fuel "could lead to a rather violent explosion environment and impose upon the primary containment relatively severe loads," the report said. The report added that U.S. nuclear regulators may have underestimated the potential damage from such explosions.

The report doesn't estimate at what point lethal radiation might be released in a crash. But it notes, "the breaching of some of the plant's concrete barriers may often be tantamount to a release of radioactivity."

An NRC spokesman said Wednesday the agency has removed the document from its reading room and was also deleting from its public Web site similarly sensitive materials that could benefit terrorists.

"Clearly we've begun our effort with our Web site which we know is the vehicle through which one is most easily able to access information, technical reports and documents. That's our first priority," spokesman Victor Dricks said.

Dricks said the NRC has "had people working around the clock" to implement numerous improved security measures since Sept. 11, including some which specifically address vulnerabilities to suicide hijackers.

As for why officials hadn't taken such precautions beforehand, Dricks added: "It was never considered credible that suicidal terrorists would hijack a large commercial airliner and deliberately crash it into a nuclear power plant."

The federal whistle-blowers group that discovered the document Oct. 3 in the NRC reading room while researching for a lawsuit says it was astonished such sensitive information was left public.

Attorney Michael Kohn, general counsel for the National Whistleblower Center, said that when he was shown the document, he was astonished that such material was still in the public domain.

"And I still can't believe it," Kohn said.

Kohn's group, which has successfully represented numerous nuclear plant workers in whistle-blower lawsuits, is citing the document in a lawsuit it is filing this week.

The suit asks the NRC to order immediate security changes at nuclear plants, including deploying anti-missile weapons and posting armed guards outside spent fuel storage areas that have lesser security.

U.S. officials have known at least since the mid-1990s that terrorists wanted to strike a nuclear power plant.

Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, encouraged followers in 1994 to strike such a plant, officials say. An FBI agent has testified in court that one of Yousef's followers told him in 1995 of plans to blow up a nuclear plant. And in 1999, the NRC acknowledged to Congress it received a credible threat of a terrorist attack against a nuclear power facility.

The 1982 study contrasts with statements some U.S. nuclear officials made in the first few days after the Sept. 11 attacks when they suggested American nuclear power plants could withstand the crash of a commercial jetliner.

Ten days after the attacks, the NRC corrected those assertions by saying it could not rule out the possibility that a suicide hijacker could cause structural damage to a plant and force the release of some radioactivity. "Nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes," it said.

The 1982 report suggested federal nuclear regulators had underestimated the potential damage caused by subsequent fire and explosions in such a crash.

"It appears that fire and explosion hazards have been treated with much less care than the direct aircraft impact," the report said. "Therefore the claim that these fire/explosion effects do not represent a threat to nuclear power plant facilities has not been clearly demonstrated."

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a frequent NRC critic, said the document suggests the government should have prepared to guard against a jetliner crash much earlier, and urged the agency to do so now.

"This document is disturbing because it makes clear the NRC knows that a nuclear power plant can be successfully attacked by an aircraft and that information has been public for nearly 20 years," Markey said.

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