Nuclear Plants and Materials

September 26, 2001

Security of nuclear power plants was definitely on people's minds as the WTC burned and nobody knew where the next plane would hit. Could a nuclear plant's containment withstand a direct hit from a fully fueled wide-body jetliner? No -- said David Kyd, spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as that body began its annual meeting in Vienna.

Terrorists are only one of the disastrous hazards these plants could face, at home and abroad. Plant safety, evacuation plans, and disaster contingencies haven't been the subject of press attention or public concern for a long time. Should they be? Is "inherent safety" possible at nuclear plants, and are Congress and the NRC doing all they can to engineer and promote it?

  • Do you know how your local nuclear power plant performed in the most recent anti-terrorist drill -- if it had one? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1991 required all licensed plants to undergo attacks by mock terrorists using fake weapons -- but tried to drop the requirement in 1998, on the grounds that it was too expensive. Nearly half of the plants tested flunked, although not all have been tested. Before the WTC, NRC had been trying to privatize the program -- essentially letting utilities test themselves. Now all bets are off. Nuclear Control Institute: Steven Dolley, 202-822-8444, releaseNRC HQ Public Affairs: 301-415-8200.
  • The IAEA on Sept. 21, 2001, adopted a resolution calling for beefed up design and physical security to prevent illicit use and sabotage of nuclear facilities and nuclear materials. IAEA (Vienna): David Kyd, [43-1] 2600-21270, Press Centre.
  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission urged all U.S. nuclear facilities to go to their highest level of security on Sept. 11, 2001. NRC Press: 301-415-8200, email. NRC's Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards is scheduled to meet October 4-6, 2001, in Rockville, Maryland, although the advance agenda does not include terrorism issues. NRC releases of 9/21 and 9/25/2001.
  • Shipments of high-level nuclear wastes could also be vulnerable. According to the Kansas City Star of 9/17/2001, the Energy Dept. reacted to the WTC attack by canceling a train shipment of high-level waste originally scheduled to go from NY to ID in summer 2001, but delayed by protests. Map of routesList of links. Congressional Research Service: "Report for Congress: Transportation of Spent Nuclear Fuel," updated May 29, 1998. KC Star. Check with officials in your state.
  • The Nuclear Energy Institute (industry group) says U.S. plants are safe. NEI Press: Scott Peterson, 202-739-8000 or 703-644-8805 (after hours).
  • Institute for Science and International Security (anti-proliferation think tank): David Albright, 202-547-3633. ISIS resources.
  • See TipSheet, Nov. 18, 1998.