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ACTION ALERT: Nuclear Reactors Still Easy Terrorist Targets

August 12, 2004
Nuclear Information & Resource Center

A coalition of environmental watchdog groups has identified 32 commercial nuclear reactors in 15 states as "pre-deployed weapons of mass destruction" that are not designed to withstand terrorist attacks and are not adequately defended. The coalition has created a petition demanding that the Department of Energy take quick action to reduce the dangers.


On August 10, 2004, a coalition of 45 national, regional, and local environmental, public interest, and nuclear watchdog organizations petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to hold emergency enforcement hearings on a significant structural vulnerability to terrorism existing at 32 US commercial nuclear power reactors located in 15 states.

"Nuclear reactors are pre-deployed weapons of mass destruction," said Deb Katz, executive director of Citizens Awareness Network, a regional group and one of the petition's authors. "It is the NRC's job to protect our health and safety and assure public confidence in the regulatory process. Presently NRC's efforts are inadequate."

The petition spotlights the General Electric Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactor (BWR) designs, 24 Mark I and 8 Mark II reactors, where large inventories of highly radioactive waste — used reactor fuel rods — are currently stored in densely packed elevated storage ponds, above and outside the primary containment structure. The roof-top nuclear waste storage ponds are vulnerable to a variety of attacks from above, below, and on three sides of the reactor designs.

"The structural vulnerability at these reactors can no longer be quietly tolerated," said Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Watchdog Project with Washington, DC-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS). "NRC must stop protecting the nuclear industry from the cost of security and assess the true cost of protecting these reactors against terrorism."

An NRC study issued in October 2000 entitled Technical Study on Spent Fuel Pool Accident Risk at Decommissioning Nuclear Power Reactors, specifically identifies the structural vulnerabilities of Mark I and II BWRs to aircraft penetration. "Mark I and Mark II secondary containments generally do not appear to have any significant structures that might reduce the likelihood of aircraft penetration," said the report.

The publicly available government report additionally stated that the public health consequences of a nuclear fuel fire caused by the loss of cooling water in the storage pond could result in tens of thousands of deaths up to 500 miles from the damaged facility.

The nuclear security coalition's emergency petition comes on the heels of congressional appropriators urging NRC to take "immediate steps" to upgrade fuel pool safety and security and that the NRC conduct further analyses of pool vulnerabilities, focusing on certain types of terrorist attacks.

The committee gave NRC 90 days to report back. Since the September 11th terrorist attacks NRC has ignored structural vulnerabilities and consequences of a successful attack on reactor fuel pools, instead describing them as "well engineered" and "robust" structures despite pre-September 11th findings to the contrary.

"Nuclear plant security is an extremely urgent issue right now," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. "The Bush Administration continues to hype the terrorist threat while neglecting its duty to take concrete steps to make the public safer. The danger these fuel pools pose is a prime example of that."

The petition requests that the NRC take immediate action to address these structural vulnerabilities to acts of terrorism in the nation's defenses. These actions include:

• Empowering an independent review of Mark I and II spent fuel pool vulnerabilities;

• Developing a comprehensive plan for addressing the danger presented by the Mark I and II fuel pools, including alternative storage options for spent fuel as well as improvements in security and emergency response;

• Establishing an open, democratic process which allows local communities and the public to be involved in the evaluation of the risk reduction measures;

• Issuing a "Demand for Information" to Mark I and II operators, requiring them to provide the data necessary to conduct the emergency review.

The request for process that is open, democratic, and inclusive of the public and affected communities is central to the coalition's petition. Since September 11, 2001, NRC has unilaterally neglected input from the public interest groups, affected communities and other government agencies, and instead allied itself with nuclear reactor owners. NRC's response to the 9-11 attacks has been characterized by secrecy, superficial improvements and public relations.

To read the petition, go to http://www.citizen.org/documents/BWRpetition.pdf
To read the annex to the petition, go to: http://www.citizen.org/documents/BWRpetitionannex.pdf

• Brendan Hoffman, Public Citizen, (202) 454-5130
• Deb Katz, Citizens Awareness Networks, (413) 339-5781
• Dr. Gordon Thompson, Institute for Resource & Security Studies, (617) 491-5177
• Paul Gunter, Nuclear Information & Resource Service, (202) 328-0002




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