Just Shut Them Down?
Matt Bivens's "Nuclear Power &Terrorism" [web only, Oct. 24] makes an interesting point about how hard nuclear power plants are to defend against terrorists, and uses this as an argument to shut them all down. I think that is rather a simplistic and sweeping solution to a very complicated problem. One could make a very good argument that manufacturing plants using powerful industrial chemicals (similar to the Bhopal plant), oil supertankers traversing the oceans (as well as refineries), gas-powered power plants, and even major dams pose a great threat to the surrounding environment and the people living nearby if, say, a truck bomb was driven into one. Major portions of our infrastructure are vulnerable to terrorism. I hope you're not proposing to dump it all overboard.
So, Matt Bivens poses the either/or of needing to either prepare to "shoot down civilian aircraft that stray too close" to nuclear power plants or "just shut the nuclear plants down."
I don't know where Bivens lives or works, but I see your offices are in New York which gets 28 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants. If Bivens or you live in New Jersey, the figure there is 57 percent. So, if we can't tolerate the perceived risks of suicidal airplanes, I wonder what substitute generation source does he suggest for those states?
We certainly have a right to insist that the NRC provide reasonable assurance that each nuclear plant, active or shut down, is prepared to withstand foreseeable threats. Until those academics in the National Laboratories convince the public that there is indeed a national energy efficiency program that could "unfold with most citizens never even noticing," we will have to make do with the nuclear energy.
BRIAN O'CONNELL, PE
Director, Nuclear Waste Program Office
National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners
W. Lafayette, In.
The article by Matt Bivens on "Nuclear Power &Terrorism" is given to (admittedly topical) hysterics that one expects to find in the tabloid press, not your esteemed journal of opinion.
Nuclear power quietly, efficiently, safely and economically provides not only 20 percent of the country's electricity but an environmentally sound option for addressing global warming and possibly shifting to a hydrogen-based economy.
As a technical person and concerned citizen, I would like to reassure The Nation's readers: Nuclear power plants are extraordinarily at risk of being the target of demonization by ignorant, if not opportunist, fear peddlers; they are not a vulnerable target for terrorists.
LEFTERI H. TSOUKALAS, PhD
Professor of Nuclear Engineering
There is an unacceptable tendency by the media to exaggerate the potential that a US design nuclear plant has towards becoming another Chernobyl. While the technology is complex and hard to explain in layman's terms, I'll try to put it most simply. The disaster at Chernobyl was not due to a fire but an uncontrolled increase in reactor power called a reactivity excursion. A reactivity excursion was allowed to occur first, by design and second, by misoperation. The result blew the bottom out and the top off of the reactor. US reactor plant designs are self-limiting to the extent that an intentional reactivity excursion (say perhaps by a team of terrorists) would not result in more than light core damage. The main point here is for the media to stop contributing to the hysteria to which our nation finds itself subjected to and to stop exaggerating the dangers that Nuclear plants present to the US citizens. Moreover, the unfavorable press coverage defeats our opportunities to diversify our country's power generation portfolio and reduce our risk of reliance on one source of fuel.
I read the recent editorial about nuclear terrorism with interest ("Nuclear Power and Terrorism") and it was actually making sense to me--until I got near the end. There it was--the same old, tired liberal argument against nuclear power. From a reasoned discussion about the potential terrorist attacks on nuclear powerplants, the item degenerated into a predictable polemic. Face it--nuclear power is safe, cheap, and reliable. If we had not listened to the shrill Luddites years ago, we would now have many more nuclear powerplants and not be so dependent on petroleum products. We need to guard the powerplants, not close them down. Using your logic, we could come up with the following: airplanes can crash, air travel is dangerous, the terrorists have targeted airliners, so shut down the nation's airlines and airports. I wish the left would stop using the recent terrorist attacks as an excuse to rail against American institutions they don't happen to like.
ALEX DRINKWATER JR.
Seems to me you're very busy giving terrorists ideas on what to do next.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Thank you for Matt Bivens's important story today. The issue of a "mobile Chernobyl" hits close to home with Utahans, who may welcome over 40,000 metric tons of high level nuclear waste if plans to build a storage facility in the West Desert are approved by the NRC. If you are interested in this story, please, visit www.kued.org/skullvalley. KUED-Channel 7, the local public television station in Salt Lake City, presented a comprehensive documentary on the subject this summer, called Skull Valley. Our web site continues to offer news updates if you'd like to check it out.
After reading Matt Bivins's fine article today, I was interested to see that you could find the address of my nearby nuclear neighbors (I live within a dozen miles of the two nukes at Turkey Point, near Miami, Florida) by going to the web site of Wackenhut, the security firm in whose charge safety ordinarily rests! http://www.wackenhut.com/nuclear/sites/s-turkey.htm
And for other nukes you can find all kinds of assistance, including actual photos of the facility: www.nucleartourist.com/us/us-plant.htm--although I note that the Florida Power ∓ Light link has now been pulled.
This nuclear facility is also highly visible, and approachable, from the ocean side. The water is extremely shallow in close, but fishing boats have been known to come in almost to land--there is no beach to speak of. Dark stormy nights and higher than usual tides probably make Wackenhut very nervous.
Ray Yang, Brian O'Connell and Alex Drinkwater all cut to the chase. Each in his own way challenges whether the security vulnerabilities at nuclear plants really do suggest we should, as Yang puts it, "dump it all overboard."
Yang and Drinkwater ask if it also follows we should jettison other useful yet vulnerable infrastructure--airlines, dams--while O'Connell asks if we can really give up reactor-generated electricity as easily as I suggested. These are all intelligent questions, deserving of a more thorough discussion than I can offer here.
My quick answer would be that nuclear power plants are unusual in being uniquely inefficient--the industry can only claim to be "cheap" because taxpayers cough up billions of dollars toward waste disposal--uniquely dangerous if targeted by terrorists, and uniquely easy to phase out rapidly.
My suggestion would be to replace our fleet of nuclear power plants, which provide 18 percent of the nation's electricity, with a mix of renewable energy sources, energy efficiencies and natural gas-fired plants. This could largely be done in a matter of a few years--or a single US presidential term. It wouldn't solve all of our problems--there are still huge amounts of poorly secured radioactive materials that demand storage, for example. But it would be a good start.
For further discussions of these possibilities, I'd recommend the websites of the Rocky Mountain Institute (www.rmi.org), the Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org/index.html) and the Worldwatch Institute (www.worldwatch.org). One can also go to www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid506.php for even more related links.
O'Connell in particular might be interested in a transcript of a speech given in July by Amory Lovins, director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, about the California energy crisis. In that talk, which can be downloaded at www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid171.php, Lovins says California--already one of the most efficient states in the nation--was able to drop its electricity consumption by from 12-14 percent this summer through conservation and/or efficiency efforts so burden-free that few are even commenting on them.
Lefteri Tsouklas and Kenneth Pitser suggest I'm indulging in hysterics by discussing nuclear plant vulnerabilities, and Nadine LaVonne wonders if I'm not abetting terrorists. For good measure, Tsoukalas suggests I am an "ignorant, if not opportunist, fear peddler," while Drinkwater wishes "the left would stop using the recent terrorist attacks as an excuse to rail against American institutions they don't like." To this all I can say is: I don't think it's hysterics to report on how strangely little was being done post-September 11 to secure our nuclear power plants; it's been well documented that the terrorists are way ahead of us on nuke plant vulnerabilities; it's a cheap shot to suggest I'm using the death of 4,700 of my countrymen as a prop to advance unrelated pet arguments; and I don't consider myself a representative of "the left."
I have no substantive comment about the more favorable letters from Warren Hoskins and Joey Marquart, but I do have to nod to them appreciatively, because that's the way my mother raised me.