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Nuclear Safety

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What happens if a suicide bomber drives a jumbo jet into one of America's 103 nuclear power reactors? What happens if a fire fed by thousands of gallons of jet fuel roars through a reactor complex--or, worse, through the enormous and barely-protected containment pools of spent nuclear fuel found at every such plant?

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Matt Bivens
Matt Bivens has covered energy, environmental and nuclear issues for www.thenation.com and a range of other...

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There's been scant notice of refugees being brutally driven out of Chechnya.

American nuclear power plants are in serious danger from an easily fixable problem.

These questions are even more obvious and urgent than they may seem at first glance. Russian television reported on Wednesday: "Our [Russian] security services are warning the United States that what happened on Tuesday is just the beginning, and that the next target of the terrorists will be an American nuclear facility." [See www.nci.org.] Meanwhile, eight years ago, in the wake of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, the terrorists themselves wrote to the New York Times to warn that nuclear attack would follow.

That letter, judged authentic by federal authorities, talked of "150 suicide soldiers" who would hit "nuclear targets." As if to drive home the point, those same terrorists had trained beforehand at a camp in Pennsylvania thirty miles from Three Mile Island. US law enforcement had them under surveillance at least a month before they struck--and at one point observed them conducting a mock assault on an electric power substation. That very same weekend, a man later judged to be mentally unwell drove his station wagon through the security barriers at Three Mile Island and parked next to a supposedly secured building. [See www.tmia.com.]

There are nuclear power plants outside many urban areas. There's Indian Point on the Hudson River, some twenty-five miles northwest of New York City; Limerick Plant some twenty miles outside of Philadelphia; Calvert Cliffs, forty-five miles from the nation's capital; and a handful of nuclear plants ringing Chicago, from Dresden to Braidwood. A terrorist strike at any such plant could not bring about a nuclear explosion--but there are a number of scenarios that would spread deadly radiation clouds across, in the NRC's famous phrase, an area the size of Pennsylvania. On top of the tens of thousands of eventual radiation-driven deaths, there is the mass panic such an attack might cause. And if we can clean up and rebuild after the World Trade Center bombing, a radiological attack would force us to write off huge swathes of land as national sacrifice areas.

So given the extraordinary events of this week, we're taking extraordinary measures to protect our nuclear plants, right?

Well, in France, the defense minister has stationed troops around nuclear power plants... But in America, not much is being done.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday in a statement said it had "recommended" that plants tighten security. Bob Jasinski, an NRC spokesman, said Friday that nothing had changed since then. (What about Wednesday's Russian TV report? Or the repeated insistence by authorities that there are more terrorist cells out there?) The NRC also says there have been "no credible general or specific threats to any of these [nuclear] facilities"--and does not seem interested in reconsidering the specific and, it now seems, very credible 1993 threats of 150 suicide soldiers headed the NRC's way.

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