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?

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.


Security Already "Privatized"

David Orrik, a former US Navy Seal, until recently ran a program that tested the security at civilian nuclear plants by organizing mock attacks against them. His exercises don't sound terribly ambitious–they pit a small team, moving on foot, against a nuclear plant security force that would be warned six months in advance of the test. Even so, half of all plants tested failed–and in at least one case, Orrik's men were able to simulate enough sabotage to cause a core melt. And remember, these tests did not simulate, say, the Osama bin Laden truck bombs so successful in demolishing US embassies in Africa in 1998.

The nuclear industry did not enjoy failing, and did not enjoy shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare for Orrik's tests–or to install security upgrades as the penalty for not passing. So it began to lean on the NRC to gut the program. This fall, the NRC is doing just that–phasing out Orrik's program in favor of one in which nuclear power plants will carry out "self-assessments." An NRC spokesman could not say if that plan would now be scrapped, and neither could Orrik. Asked on Friday if NRC was considering any dramatic new security measures, Orrik said he had "no sense at all" what would happen next. "I'm curious myself–will it be a sea change? Or business as usual?"


Sleeping in a Coffin

Ironically, one of the first real critical looks at the NRC's decision to let nuclear plants who failed security tests make up their own tests instead appeared in U.S. News & World Report's Monday edition–the day before, well, Tuesday.

That article quotes a representative of the Nuclear Enterprise Institute–the nuclear power industry's Washington-based trade group–as arguing that nuclear power plants "are overly defended at a level that is not at all commensurate with the risk." On Friday, the NEI's offices were closed. But a statement on the NEI website [www.nei.org] trumpeted the "extensive security measures" insisted on by the NRC, including employee background checks. These are the same background checks that let a man named Carl Drega work at three nuclear power plants throughout the 1990s. Shortly after leaving the third plant, Drega went on a 1997 killing spree that left dead two state troopers, a judge and a newspaper editor. Nor did such background checks blackball a computer programmer who worked at the Maine Yankee nuclear plant and slept in a coffin. That man goes on trial next year for the murder of seven co-workers at a Massachusetts technology company.

The NEI statement on nuclear plant security states that the reinforced concrete containment buildings that surround US reactors–they are there to prevent the spread of radiation in case of an accident–are "designed to withstand the impact of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and airborne objects up to a certain force." In reality, as even the NRC conceded on Friday, reactor containment buildings were not built with the idea of resisting an intentional assault by a modern-day jet–certainly not the monster 767s that crashed into the World Trade Center. The literature is actually strangely silent on this point–so much so that experts interviewed all named the same study, published in 1974 in Nuclear Safety, about probabilities of a plane accidentally hitting a nuclear reactor. That study concluded that some reactor containment structures had zero chance of sustaining a hit by a "large" plane, defined as more than 6.25 tons. The 767s that hit the trade center weighed 150 tons, and were probably moving at top speed.

In fact, the security vulnerabilities at nuclear plants are so ghastly that almost everyone contacted for this article balked at discussing them in any detail. Paul Gunter, an expert with the anti-nuclear power Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), recoiled when asked about one possible scenario. "Oh, I don't want to prescribe that. It's too terrifying to imagine." NRC spokesman Jasinski also refused to discuss that scenario. Bennett Ramberg, author of a sixteen-year-old book called Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy: an Unrecognized Military Peril, turned away some questions, saying, "I feel a little discomfort talking about that now." Later Friday, after Ramberg saw Wednesday's report of Pakistani terrorists threatening to target nuclear installations in India, and Tuesday's report of Israel thinking of bombing Iran's nuclear facilities, he felt freer to talk. "The cat's out of the bag," he observed.


Terrorists Don't Bomb Windmills

This week's events have changed the national landscape for nuclear power. For starters, they make the industry's gushy talk about the next-generation Pebble Bed Reactor–the reactor so safe it won't even need a containment building–seem ghastly and ridiculous.

Terrorism also has implications for the Great Waste Debate. Our reactors have for fifty years been piling up vast quantities of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel. The question of what to do with it all takes on a new urgency. Do we ship it all to a central site like the one proposed for Yucca Mountain–and create a spectacular series of terrorist targets for years, turning trains and trucks of waste into what critics deride as "Mobile Chernobyl"? Or do we keep waste in vast pools on site at reactor complexes–in buildings so frail that David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says they could be pierced "by a Cessna"–and also keep producing more such waste every day?

There is no easy answer–which may explain such a sluggish and bleary-eyed response to potential terrorism against nuclear targets: the NRC and others are in denial. Not so long ago, they were arguing that terrorism was not a very scientific probability, and that terrorists had a moral impediment against taking life on a mass scale. So much for that. But if terrorism is real, then a clear-eyed view would suggest nuclear power is done for.

Nuclear power had been previously discredited on environmental grounds, on public safety grounds and even on financial grounds–don't be fooled, it's immensely costly, even with the public paying for both waste disposal and liability insurance. This week, nuclear power was also discredited on grounds of national security. A country that has nuclear power plants, it turns out, has handed over to "the enemy" a quasi-nuclear military capability.

We get 20 percent of our electricity from our fleet of enormously expensive and dangerous reactors. Regardless of what our vice president may think, through better energy efficiency and conservation alone we could reduce energy demand to the point of not needing any of those plants–of not even noticing that they had been shut down. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a prominent think-tank on energy matters, argues that "up to 75 percent of the electricity used in the United States today could be saved with energy efficiency measures that cost less than the electricity itself."

Given that our national will and purpose are now being mobilized, does anyone doubt that, properly channeled, we could succeed in this? Or that along the way we could also establish wind power, solar power and hydrogen fuel cells–and in so doing, completely wean ourselves from the oil of the Middle East? Surely this–and not open-ended war against every nation that has ever stamped bin Laden's passport–is the path to real victory and national security. After all, as Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists noted, no one this week is calling his colleagues in the alternative energy sectors to ask about terrorist threats to windmills.

In the meantime, we can follow France's lead and post National Guardsmen around all nuclear facilities. We can restore the NRC's compulsory security drills, and make them even more demanding. Hey, we can even consider anti-aircraft emplacements at each power plant. And we can see how safe that makes us feel when the White House starts trying to punish Afghanistan.